The Big Sick is a fascinating movie: a rom-com for the modern age. Despite being produced by Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids, Knocked Up), the ‘com’ part of the equation is relatively subtle, avoiding (for the most part) the broad, scatalogical approach for which he is famed. Instead, this is a gentle, honest exploration of cross-cultural love and the complexities of modern relationships.
Based on the true story of writers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, the film charts the initial stages of their romance as they negotiate the choppy waters of one-night stands, reluctantly-developing feelings and parental expectations. When a sudden, devastating illness is added to the mix, it seems as if the relationship might break under the strain.
Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, which adds to the sense of truthfulness. His performance is both charming and understated, with a quirky mix of confidence and modesty, which is very appealing indeed. He doesn’t self-aggrandize, but nor does he self-deprecate in that ostentatious, humble-bragging manner some comedians employ. And his account of his family is affectionate and kind, even though he’s largely shown in opposition to them. They want him to become a lawyer; they want him to be a devout Muslim; they want to arrange his marriage to a Pakistani woman. None of these things coincides with what Kumail wants for himself: he’s an aspiring stand-up comedian; he’s not sure about his faith. But his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) are not his enemies: they are his family and they love him as much as he loves them. Their marriage is happy, and so is his brother, Naveed (Adeel Ahktar)’s: they all just want the best for him. The women they introduce him to are not awful; they’re real, believable people: attractive, intelligent, with interests of their own. But Kumail has fallen for Emily (played by Zoe Kazan). And she doesn’t fit the mould because she’s a white American.
As for grad-student psychologist Emily, she’s appalled to discover that Kumail is considering an arranged marriage, and that his plans for the future don’t necessarily include her. She’s in love with him, and devastated by the realisation that he’s caught between two worlds. “I can’t be the reason you lose your family,” she tells him. It’s too big, too much.
When Emily falls ill, however, Kumail is forced to confront his feelings and make a decision. He can’t coast along trying to appease everyone forever.
It doesn’t sound very amusing when it’s summarised, but this film is as irreverently funny as it is moving. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are hilarious as Emily’s bickering parents, and Kher and Shroff’s disapproving double act is also excellent. The scenes backstage in the comedy club are illuminating, and benefit from a convincing shot of authenticity – after all, this is a world that seasoned stand-up Nanjiani knows well.
Really, this is a delightful film, with such a lot going for it. But don’t go along expecting a gross-out comedy. This is something way more interesting.