Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is the Pakistani-American protagonist of The Big Sick, a romantic comedy-drama full of equal parts heart and humor. His parents Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) want him to be a lawyer, and more importantly, marry a Pakistani, which causes him distress and heartache. As the film shows, Kumail is working as an Uber driver and performing stand-up comedy as well as his one-man show Kumail Nanjiani: Citizen. What’s more—and worse—is that Kumail falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan), a white woman who attends one of his gigs.
The Big Sick, co-written by Nanjiani with the real-life Emily, is based on Kumail and Emily’s experiences. The film has the couple dating for its first 40 minutes, and their relationship is quite fun and chummy until something happens. Well, actually, two things happen. First, the couple’s relationship hits a big snag, and second, and unrelated, Emily ends up in the hospital.
That’s not really a spoiler as the film’s title indicates it’s about a major illness, however, Emily is put in a medically induced coma. Kumail, in support, hangs out at the hospital, meeting Emily’s parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter), who are initially wary of Kumail, but quickly soften to him. It may be Kumail’s very funny 9/11 joke that disarms them. (Audiences may be laughing too hard to catch all that is said during that particular exchange).
Kumail’s deadpan comic timing and droll delivery—which is often very funny—certainly helps him navigate the difficult moments with Terry and Beth, who have their own issues. But his experiences caring for and about the comatose Emily also help him develop his self-confidence. While it may be easy to tell jokes to strangers from a stage—and a subplot has Kumail auditioning for a big gig at a comedy festival in Montreal—it is hard for Kumail to tell the truth to the people he cares about the most. One of the film’s strongest scenes has Kumail talking honestly and openly with his parents.
Much of The Big Sick seems like a cross between Meet the Parents and While You Were Sleeping, but the film’s real point—and what distinguishes it—is that is depicts the palpable ache immigrant children have at being torn between their parents’ wishes and their own “American” desires. It’s pleasing to see a rom-com play out with a South Asian protagonist who is a three-dimensional character that viewers will care about, perhaps even deeply. And while terrorist jokes can feel de rigueur, there is an amusing scene in the comedy club where Beth reacts to a heckler who makes an ISIS reference while Kumail’s on stage.
Nanjiami is terrific here, putting his life on screen, and the feisty Hunter and the lax Romano wring laughs with their patented shtick in supporting roles. The Big Sick is a relationship film, but it is as finely attuned to the dynamics between parents and children as it is to the rhythm of its central couple. That is why it generates such affection.
The Big Sick opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.