by Alan Yudman
It seems rare to me that a romantic comedy does not assume audiences are idiots and need to be pandered to. That a movie assumes the audience is capable of complex human emotions or holding two thoughts in their head or feelings in their heart at the same time. THE BIG SICK flies in the face of all those assumptions.
The film is based on the real life romance between Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. The couple have been married for 10 years and co-wrote the screenplay. So, to say it is false or inauthentic is kind of a non-starter. This is they way their lives meshed. Of course situations and characters were changed for the purpose of a movie but that doesn’t make it feel less real.
Kumail and Emily meet in a comedy club where he is trying to work on becoming a stand-up comic. She is a grad student wanting to become a therapist. Only one of their dreams came true. Kumail is a successful comedian and comic actor. But, Emily has become a very good comedy writer and producer. So win-win.
Their relationship develops quickly in the movie. They seem to be falling in love. But Kumail has to deal with his traditional Pakistani family and his Muslim upbringing. Marriages are arranged. Prayers are said 5 times a day. Parents are not questioned. He keeps all this from Emily, just as he keeps her from his family.
Sunday dinners are an excuse for his mother to bring in yet another single Pakistani woman for an audition. And it feels like it complete with resume and headshot. Kumail keeps those photos in a cigar box. He doesn’t pray when he goes to his parents home. He goes in the basement and plays video games.
Emily finds the cigar box and questions why he is lying to her. It’s deal breaker and a relationship ender. Then one night he gets a phone call that she is in the hospital and he goes to check on her and make sure she is not alone. That’s when the movie really takes off. Emily has a life threatening infection and needs to be placed in a medically induced coma. Her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) show up, knowing Kumail lied to their daughter and for a while keep him at a distance.
But tragedy has a tendency to bring people together and reveal the best in everyone. The parents and Kumail become closer and he realizes that he is willing to sacrifice his family for her. There is a hysterical scene where after his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) disavow him, he shows up for dinner uninvited to tell them he is not leaving the family.
There are so many great moments in the film, and to list them all is a fools errand. The performances are great. Hunter is wonderful as usual and Romano again shows he can handle drama. Kher is a legend in Indian cinema and you can see why in this performance that is funny and touching. Kumail’s band of friends include Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham and Kurt Braunohler, who nearly steals parts of the movie with his over-the-top performance as a struggling comic.
it’s not one thing that makes THE BIG SICK great. It’s the combination of several very good things. Heart, honesty, funny and brains. It seems like a list of things you would want in a husband or wife. It’s also a list of real stuff that rom-com’s seem to have forgotten about. I’m glad Nanjiani and Gordon reminded us what that can look like on the big screen.