I have been moved to tears and had my heart warmed by plenty of romantic comedies. But before “The Big Sick,” I had never felt genuine stakes in the genre until now.
Kumail Nanjiani has made a rom-com where the consequences and realities of the film are far greater than whether he and her end up together. Nanjiani grapples with race, religion and life and death all as he tries to tell a funny, modern love story.
It’s such a surprise, because “The Big Sick” doesn’t begin far differently from the films of so many other comedians who follow in Louis C.K.’s footsteps and want to tell their coming-of-age stories.
Nanjiani plays himself as a struggling stand-up comic in Chicago along with his other funny friends (Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler). His self-deprecating insecurities off stage are quite similar to Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice” or Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None.” And like Ansari’s Netflix show, Nanjiani introduces his underrepresented perspective as a Pakistani to the table. At every family dinner his mom not so subtly introduces him to a young Pakistani woman as a potential candidate for an arranged marriage. They’ve all studied up on his favorite foods and shows. One girl awkwardly works in an “X-Files” reference into the conversation to try and score some points.
But Nanjiani has already started up a fling with Emily (Zoe Kazan), a white woman. She however sees through his pop culture preferences and can relate with him another level. “I love it when men test my taste,” she says. Or she calls him out when he draws her name in the floral cursive of his native tongue as a pick up line. “Does that work?”
And if the culture clash between Kumail and Emily were all “The Big Sick” had to offer, it might be enough. Nanjiani displays his awkward, deadpan sarcasm in one scene when he and his brother (Anupam Kher) are talking and he too loudly disturbs the room by exclaiming, “A white woman!” “Sorry, we hate terrorists,” Nanjiani says to diffuse the situation.
But things take a sudden turn. Kumail and Emily have broken up when he’s afraid his parents will never allow their relationship to continue. Then after a rebound one-night-stand, he gets a call from Emily’s best friend. She’s in the hospital with a serious, destabilizing illness, and as the only one there, he needs to be the one to authorize placing Emily into a medically-induced coma. Yikes.
Suddenly Kumail is face to face with Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). Romano taps his knees with agitation and worry as though Kumail weren’t even there. Hunter averts her eyes low and seems to stare right through him; she’s a mother who lays down the law with force and vigor and knows how this ex-boyfriend wronged her daughter. Hunter and Romano both give wonderful performances.
Nanjiani’s script, which he wrote with his real-life wife Emily Gordon, makes us realize love is bigger than just two people. It’s the relationships and the family formed around the love that makes it meaningful. We see it in late-night stress eating with Beth and sleeping bag confessionals with Terry. And Kumail realizes his own love is selfish if it comes ahead of his family traditions and values.
What’s so heart-wrenching about “The Big Sick” is that at the end of it all, not only are we unsure if Emily will live, but we likewise fear whether the love will be mutual if Emily wakes from that coma. This is genuine suspense in a romantic comedy of all places. Nanjiani too gives the best performance of his career, channeling those complicated feelings of grief in awkwardly funny ways. In one scene he unloads on an unhelpful attendant at a fast food drive through, and it’s a hilarious example of how emotionally messed up “The Big Sick” feels.
The press will look at “The Big Sick” and “Master of None” and give them points for how it offers a positive look at an underrepresented racial group on screen. It deserves those. But Aziz Ansari brought his own personality, cinematic style and love of food and Italian culture into the rom-com. Nanjiani did one better and contributed some much needed reality into the genre.