Film Review: The Big Sick

In his first starring role, co-writer Kumail Nanjiani delivers a crowd-pleaser with this semi-autobiographical rom-com/culture-clash dramedy.
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Most people familiar with Kumail Nanjiani probably know him from the hit HBO comedy series “Silicon Valley,” where his sardonic comic timing makes him an essential part of the show’s tech-nerd ensemble. But his career rocketed to a new level with the Sundance 2017 premiere of The Big Sick, his first feature as a leading man, co-written with his wife, Emily V. Gordon. To say it’s a personal film is an understatement: It recounts, with dramatic liberties, the couple’s highly unusual courtship. The Pakistani standup comedian Nanjiani had been dating Emily, a white American, for a few months when she suddenly became extremely ill and had to be placed in an induced coma. Complicating matters, he had not told his devout Muslim family, believers in arranged marriages, about his new girlfriend.

The dark U-turn of what Nanjiani calls “a romantic coma-dy” with his typical irreverence may sound like a turnoff, but Nanjiani, Gordon and their director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris) have pulled off something of a miracle: a film that delights while never sidestepping the serious aspects of the couple’s 2006 crisis. The Big Sick combines several genres—rom-com, culture-clash dramedy, medical mystery—and delivers on all levels; it remains reality-based but is also extremely funny, observant and romantic.

In the film, Kumail, essentially playing himself, first encounters Emily (Zoe Kazan) when she good-naturedly heckles him at one of his gigs. They go home together, find they have a lot in common, particularly their pop-culture obsessions, and begin dating in earnest. But when Kumail gets cold feet about introducing her to his family, they break up (a fictional complication added here).

When Emily develops a crippling infection and is hospitalized, it’s her ex-boyfriend who is recruited to authorize the emergency coma and contact her parents. Enter Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Beth and Terry, who know all about the breakup and aren’t particularly welcoming of this cad who did their daughter wrong (even if he did right by her at the hospital). A second sort of courtship begins, as Kumail joins the vigil and begins to ingratiate himself with Beth and Terry.

Heretofore an acerbic supporting player, Nanjiani steps up to the dramatic challenges of the film—not surprising, really, since he lived it. His chemistry with the spirited and charming Kazan is instantaneous, laying the groundwork for the gravity of the situation that follows. Romano’s dry comic delivery is a perfect match for Nanjiani’s, and their scenes together are priceless. And Oscar winner Hunter is a tremendous asset to the film as a very complicated and formidable woman who eventually warms to her daughter’s protector.

The Big Sick is groundbreaking in its casting of a South Asian as the lead in an American romantic comedy; part of the credit for that goes to producer Judd Apatow, who also backed Amy Schumer’s successful writing-starring debut with Trainwreck. The movie also provides a very welcome look at the lives of a Pakistani Muslim family; despite the marriage arrangements (prospective Muslim candidates as impromptu dinner guests) Kumail fights against, they bicker and tease one another like any American household. As Kumail’s mother, Zenobia Shroff is as much a force as Hunter’s Beth, and veteran Bollywood actor Anupam Kher (Silver Linings Playbook) and Adeel Akhtar (Four Lions) are engaging as Kumail’s father and brother, respectively.

At CinemaCon in Las Vegas, Nanjiani joked, “This is the best movie you will see about a Pakistani standup comedian and a girl in a coma.”But that’s underselling it, of course. The Big Sick is the most entertaining, surprising and multi-layered comedy you will probably see this year.

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