The story of how comedian Kumail Nanjiani and author Emily V. Gordon met and were torn apart by family and disease is a gratifying romance in which the wit of the couple keeps it compelling. The Big Sick sells its compatibility by way of the loving snark that each individual has cultivated prior to knowing one another. Kumail and Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) test each other on unexpected levels, getting to the bottom of their flaws far sooner than most couples. The Big Sick warmly subverts the genre with two smart, driven people who deserve each other – even though it may take the worst possible scenarios playing out for them to realize it.
The couple’s initial intimacy is undermined by the traditionalism of Kumail’s Pakistani family. They believe in arranged marriages, and work to guide him into one. So strict are their ambitions for their son that he lies to them about doing stand-up, and their perpetually-concerned demeanor is nicely contrasted with Nanjiani’s constant stream of sarcasm. However, illness strikes Emily, and those once playful exchanges are rendered trivial by an indefinite coma. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play Emily’s parents, who welcome Nanjiani as they await her prognosis. They’re accessible and dysfunctional in a way that make you momentarily forget that it’s Hunter and Romano. Hunter’s sweet – albeit abrasive – disposition is a good match with the more subdued Romano, whose usual monotone delivery feels muted yet still more emotive.
Real-life comedians Aidy Bryant (of SNL), Bo Burnham, and Kurt Braunohler are Kumail’s friends who encourage him to pursue his professional passion. Without stealing the spotlight, they provide some lovingly critical feedback, keeping him busy when his fortunes seem hopeless. It’s a well-executed effort by director Michael Showalter (actor of the short lived show The State and the Wet Hot American Summer franchise), who plays up the art of Nanjiami’s deadpan and the emotional sputter of Kazan’s situational frustrations. The turns of the plot have a punch to them with the help of patient, revelatory shots, and Showalter simultaneously shows us how proud Kumail is of his family’s heritage while respectfully explicating how resistant he is to being contained by its restrictions within modern America.
Nanjiani has excellent timing, while Kazan is a lovingly stubborn foil that takes his game down several notches with biting evaluations of his courtship. Emily is not totally immune to his jokes, but she pushes back enough on his assumptions that his comedic material and accessibility improves. She wears her vulnerability well, while also having goals and a no-nonsense attitude towards commitment. Her intelligence and sense of humor sets her apart from the other women Kumail’s parents have offered up, and the movie makes a point of having Kumail measure up to her standards – that it’s not just about him finding the right woman, but about how he must measure up to someone as special as Emily. He also must love and care as much as she does in order for the union to work. Kazan adds a discerning smile to their interactions, and her tears feel cumulative when emotions boil over.
The story in The Big Sick has an authentic flow to how easily lines are crossed and difficult to mend in relationships, showcasing a camaraderie that goes far beyond the cutesy happenstances affiliated with love stories to result in something palpably real, forged by hardship and humor. Emily and Kumail are stymied by family, argumentative missteps, and illness, but these obstacles, combined with layered dry humor, make for a substantive film.