“Always with the comedy”
A lot of romantic comedies release each year—a lot. And they’re generally all the same with characters built from stereotypes rather than a writer’s personal experience. The ones that stick out are therefore those that arrive from the heart with something true to say. They’re the few possessing the honesty to show love’s ebbs and flows as well as the reality that it won’t always prevail. Sometimes the journey of the central couple lies in their growth to move onto other things, their brief collision providing an unforgettable and formidable moment in their lives even if it may lead them apart. Humor is born from the situation, those films steeped in a mixture of uniqueness and universality becoming what we remember, revisit, and hope to watch inspire.
The Big Sick is one of these rare cases. It’s premise is timely—that of an interracial and interreligious coupling seeking to transcend the “duties” and “tradition” of societal norms and cultural imperatives for a purity of the human soul—and unorthodox—the love interest (Zoe Kazan‘s Emily) spends most of the runtime in a medically induced coma that leaves the meat and potato emotional heft to the touching yet awkward dynamic between her parents and the lead character (Kumail Nanjiani‘s Kumail). It’s not some high concept hook to grab audience members before delivering the usual Hollywood hokum, though. What we’re watching is real. Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon have fearlessly put their failings, insecurities, and promise onscreen to remind us love works in mysterious and rewarding ways.
Yes, before the power couple (Gordon has transitioned from therapist to writer/producer for husband Nanjiani’s blossoming career) rose to the status of screenwriters for a Judd Apatow production, he was a fledging stand-up comedian with hopes of a big break and she an aspiring doctor in the midst of grad school. Through Michael Showalter‘s direction we’re introduced to their avatars via a standard meet-cute at a Chicago club: Kumail onstage and Emily in the audience. A one-night stand situation cultivates feelings neither expected and those emotions unite two people not necessarily in search of a long-term relationship at the start. Sometimes lightning strikes and you just have to see it through. They take a chance on each other, fall in love, and watch as it all breaks apart.
The sticking point comes from Kumail’s Pakistani/Muslim background and what it means for a first generation immigrant raised by parents accustomed to the old country’s ways. Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) came to America to give their sons opportunity, but in their minds that privilege came with a cost. Their sons could live in this land of the free if they honored their heritage by arranged marrying an approved Pakistani woman. Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) lived up to this unwritten bargain amidst stories of compatriots disowned by families for taking an American spouse. Kumail leads them all to believe he’ll follow suit despite his heart not being in it. Since Mom and Dad can barely handle his career choice, a white wife is out of the question.
So as Kumail and Emily’s union advances to the “meeting parents” stage, he remains caught between worlds. She’s the one he wants, but it’s impossible to reconcile romantic love with the foregone conclusion that it’ll means he’ll lose the familial love he’s known his entire life. Suffice it to say, her discovery of this conflict (a big difference from him having the courage to admit it) doesn’t go well. The lies lead to their break-up. Desperation leads Emily’s BFF Jesse (Rebecca Naomi Jones) to call him when she’s admitted to the hospital. And her rapidly devolving health forces him to ring her parents (Holly Hunter‘s Beth and Ray Romano‘s Terry). Welcome to comatose daughter, distraught parents, and the ex-boyfriend realizing he’s made a horrible mistake out of fear.
At two hours, The Big Sick spends ample time ensuring we understand Kumail’s dueling motivations as well as Emily’s strength and self-worth. We watch their romance evolve like many romantic comedies, this hiccup of betrayal something to fade into a montage of remorse before a reunion earns them happy ending. But that’s not what happened or what anyone should believe. We wouldn’t in our wildest nightmares assume a respiratory infection would send Emily to the hospital while still rightfully angry at Kumail—but there they are. Life comes without warning or apologies. It presents us with opportunities that can provide redemption or confirm defeat. What happens next may not win Emily back (she’s unconscious after all), but it may wake Kumail up to take ownership of his life.
It’s therefore not wrong to remove the rom-com label completely since the film is ostensibly a coming-of-age tale moving Kumail from an existence devoid of responsibility and full of dreams to one of self-actualization and risk. He’s confronted with the prospect of love and its commitment; the familial threat of excommunication despite their stubbornness to fulfill it proving almost impossible to fathom; and a professional crossroads where the chance of success is at his fingertips to seize through hard work rather than the fantastical hope that one fateful night of everything coming together perfectly will supply instant validation. Until he’s faced with real loss—Emily may never wake-up so he can repair what he said the last time they spoke—he feels invincible. Adulthood is realizing we’re not.
We see the different stages of this through his friends (Bo Burnham‘s luck achieving his wildest dreams, Aidy Bryant‘s optimism making sure her dreams never die, and Kurt Braunohler‘s innocence keeping him grounded to realize he’s at his ceiling) as well as Emily’s parents. They’re all experiencing their own crossroads because one perpetually leads to the next. Fear plays a big part in each—alongside guilt, remorse, insecurity, and anger. Some characters explode from pent-up emotion, the quantity built from other revelations we learn later to provide more depth and meaning to every action performed. Nanjiani and Gordon have this way of adhering to rom-com tropes just as they subvert them. Beth and Terry may have “wisdom” to share with Kumail, but they too must follow it themselves.
Nobody onscreen is perfect, has all the answers, or finds them by the end. The film appears to be working towards an overlong bow-tied conclusion that drags in comparison to the tightly orchestrated progression beforehand, but things are thankfully left with some ambiguity and drama thanks to Nanjiani and Kazan’s great performances. We know how the story ends (it’s about the screenwriters), so its success lies in the poignancy and authenticity of the journey. Kumail’s friends leave something to be desired (their inclusion is for comic relief and prop), but the rest are integral to the character’s emotional arc. Kher and Shroff are fantastic, but Romano and especially Hunter shine with their own three-dimensionality. For better or worse: we often don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone.
 Emily (Zoe Kazan) and Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) in THE BIG SICK. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.
 From L to R: Holly Hunter as “Beth,” Ray Romano as “Terry” and Kumail Nanjiani as “Kumail” in THE BIG SICK. Photo by Nicole Rivelli.
 From L to R: Bo Burnham as “CJ,” Aidy Bryant as “Mary” and Kumail Nanjiani as “Kumail” in THE BIG SICK. Photo by Nicole Rivelli.