The Mob’s Reel: ‘The Big Sick’ Is Hilarious and Heartfelt
The Mob’s Reel is a film column that features reviews and essays covering everything from the latest blockbusters to standout indies.
Helmed by Michael Showalter, The Big Sick is both funny and poignant, standing out in a crowded summer as one of 2017’s best films. The script was written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, who based it on the early days of their real-life relationship.
Kumail, played by Nanjiani himself, is a Pakistan-born stand-up comic and Uber driver living in Chicago. After a performance at a comedy club, he meets Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), who’s studying to become a psychologist, and the two begin a romance buoyed by playful, authentic chemistry.
For much of the film, Kumail is well-intentioned but shortsighted and dishonest. He can’t admit to his traditionalist parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) that he no longer prays and has no interest in any of the young Pakistani women his mother tries to set him up with. He keeps his new girlfriend a secret from his family, and Emily is deeply hurt when she finds this out months into their relationship. After a heated argument, the two break up.
When Kumail gets a call that Emily has been hospitalized due to an infection, he rushes over to visit. She quickly takes a turn for the worse and is put into a medically-induced coma, leaving Kumail to call Emily’s parents, Terry and Beth (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), who then arrive from out of town to look after their daughter.
Kumail’s complex relationship with Emily’s parents is a highlight of the film. At first, Terry and Beth want nothing to do with the guy who broke Emily’s heart, but Kumail keeps showing up to be by their daughter’s side. They awkwardly get to know each other and begin to bond during the most difficult time of their lives. This is something we don’t often see in this type of film; The Big Sick adeptly explores the nuances and complications inherent in developing a relationship with a partner’s parents, with the added wrinkle of that partner having fallen into a coma. Terry and Beth are fully-formed characters whose marriage could have carried a movie on its own, with both Romano and Hunter giving excellent performances.
Nanjiani, who currently stars on HBO’s Silicon Valley, is a great stand-up comic and has stolen scenes in several films, but The Big Sick is his first big-screen role to highlight how gifted he is as an actor. He proves more than capable of handling the film’s dramatic moments, particularly when he breaks down during a stand-up performance as he worries for Emily, having fallen in deeper love with her as her illness worsens. Kazan is also great, giving such a vividly multifaceted performance early in the film that Emily’s presence is still felt when she falls into her coma.
There’s a lot of texture to the film that sets it apart from many rom-coms, including Kumail’s difficulty in reconciling his Pakistani heritage with his Americanized values and lifestyle. He’s stuck between two worlds, struggling with his cultural identity while making little effort to actually deal with it healthily. A scene between Kumail and Khadija (Vella Lovell), one of the women his mother keeps trying to set him up with, spotlights how careless Kumail can be with the feelings of others; she’s looking for someone to finally settle down with, and it’s hurtful of Kumail to feign interest, wasting her time by not simply admitting that he has no desire for an arranged marriage. It unfortunately takes a harrowing experience in Emily’s medical scare to force him to make difficult but necessary choices about his life.
Nanjiani and Gordon’s script pulls no punches in depicting the raw emotional truths of their relationship. Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer, My Name is Doris) should get a lot of credit in his direction, as he encourages richly intimate interactions between his actors. The film is often sharply funny, but it isn’t scared to let its touching moments play out earnestly. Thankfully, humor isn’t used to undercut or soften the drama; there’s a good balance between both, with no jarring tonal shifts. I love how spontaneous and organic the humor is; each character is funny in ways that are specific to their personalities, and it’s fun seeing great comedians like Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and Kurt Braunohler pop up as Kumail’s stand-up friends.
The Big Sick deserves all the positive buzz it’s been getting, and I hope that the multitalented Gordon and Nanjiani decide to write another film together soon, because The Big Sick is something special: a compelling and resonant comedy about flawed people trying to be decent, learning to be better to each other and to themselves.
I’ve dealt with a loved one falling into a coma, and while it was harrowing and horrifying, there were brief sparks of levity that shone in the darkness, and The Big Sick captures the same emotional nuances — the fear, tears, and laughs — that my family and I experienced. Thanks for sharing your story, Emily and Kumail.