Like Get Out earlier this year, The Big Sick is winning critical acclaim by taking a fairly formulaic genre (horror for Get Out, romantic comedy for The Big Sick) and infusing it with layered complexity. Sick stars Kumail Nanjiani (who also co-wrote it with his real-life wife Emily Gordon) as a Pakistan-born stand-up comedian who must deal with his mother working hard to set him up in a traditional arranged marriage, per their cultural norms. Though Kumail (also his character’s name) has no real intention of ever marrying one of the myriad girls his mother introduces to him at dinner, he continually endures the ignominious visits to please both of his parents. When Kumail meets a charming white woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) that he really likes, he is finally forced to confront the reality of the situation with his parents. Can he tell them he is dating a white woman? Or does he need to cease dating Emily to make his parents happy? What Kumail chooses and how he comes to that decision are significantly impacted by Emily getting sick and being put into a medically-induced coma.
That last twist of fate might seem to identify the movie as a more madcap or farcical comedy. However, since the script is based on Nanjiani’s real-life relationship with his now-wife, the movie is effortlessly realistic. Gone are the contrived circumstances and cardboard characters of some of the most beloved romantic-comedies, replaced by nuanced performances, messy but relatable interactions, and perceptive analyses of old-school culture in a liberal-minded and modern world. Nanjiani (basically playing himself) and Kazan (slowly amassing a group of performances that announce her strong talent) are funny, interesting, and subtle. The supporting cast is equally fantastic. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play Emily’s frazzled parents, dealing with Emily’s sickness and hospitalization as well as some problems from their own relationship. Hunter’s character is a little high-strung (understood, considering the trying circumstances), but the actress finds the right notes to reveal the depth of caring underneath. She and Nanjiani play off each other well in a few quiet scenes that ask both of them to reveal unexpected insight in understated ways. In some ways, Hunter has the broadest spectrum to show and she does it with aplomb. Romano’s character is a little less complex, but no less affecting. Though Romano has a lot of experience with comedy, his role here is a man who fumbles with humor. He is a sensitive person, sometimes more willing to show compassion than his wife, but no less punctured by his daughter’s illness.
What works so well about The Big Sick is its examination of culture, race, relationships, and love. Even if audience members know where the film will ultimately end up, its journey to that endpoint is one of insight and heart. It does not oversimplify characters (in a wonderful stroke that I probably should not have relegated to this dismissive parenthetical, Kumail’s Pakistani parents are multi-dimensional human beings who explain their reasons for wanting him to participate in an arranged marriage and actually make sense doing it), it allows relatable messiness to upset the normal rhythms of a rom-com, and it allows the audience to believe that there is not a preordained conclusion (even if there actually is).
Above all, the movie is hilarious. Nanjiani’s background as a stand-up comic (as well as Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant as his funniest comedian friends) serves the story and the material well. There are a lot of short scenes from various stand-up performances but Nanjiani is also incredibly funny just speaking to his friends and acquaintances. The script gets away with “jokes” being dropped into everyday conversation because that is how the character’s mind works. Nanjiani’s brother in the film, a batting-cage-loving, faithful Muslim, is also very humorous, simply by reacting to Nanjiani’s perspective. Just like their parents, the brother is not a one-note sidekick who drops in to provide comic relief; he is a three-dimensional character to offers the counterpoint to Kamail’s belief that the “old ways” are wrongheaded. His brother (played with well-measured exasperation by Adeel Akhtar) enjoys a wonderful relationship with his wife of an arranged marriage, and spends a lot of his energy trying to convince Kumail that he can have that same happiness. The realism of the film and its wit benefit greatly from the stand-up comedy scene and the refusal to stereotype anybody.
The Big Sick is the rare movie that should appeal to any audience, regardless or age, race, or creed. Obviously it offers hearty laughs but the situations it explores have myriad applications. If you have ever dealt with the terror of a medical emergency, the fear of meeting your significant other’s parents, the nerves of going onstage to perform, the push and pull of your parents’ wishes, the excitement of a new relationship, or the devastation of that relationship ending, then the movie offers something significant for you. But more than that, since The Big Sick is based on real life, it offers the possibility that the magic of romance we so often get entranced by on the big screen might actually be attainable for each of us–we just cannot forget the trouble and effort and struggle it will take to achieve that happy ending.