The Big Sick is much more than just the romantic comedy it’s being marketed as. It’s a daring concept for a film, telling as it does the story of the romance of its central characters Kumail and Emily, who meet after she heckles his stand-up comedy show, fall for each other, and then see their relationship falter directly before she is put into a coma after developing the eponymous Big Sick. What makes it a daring concept is the fact that it’s a true story, with Kumail Nanjiani, who wrote the script with his wife Emily, playing himself.
And it works quite remarkably well. Nanjiani weaves into the story a rather confessional look at his own upbringing, poking affectionate fun at his Pakistani upbringing and his mother’s attempts to find him a nice Pakistani girl, in Chicago, to marry, all the while trying to avoid discussing with Emily how unlikely his family would be to accept a white girl as his future wife. In doing so he tells a beautiful story with genuine warmth and a lot of properly funny jokes.
Najiani and Zoe Kazan, who plays Emily, work remarkably well together on screen. The two inhabit their roles wonderfully — while it’s not too much of a stretch for him, of course, Kazan is a delightful screen presence, and the two seem remarkably well-suited together.
The supporting cast, similarly, find depth and richness in their characters. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play Emily’s parents, who initially view Kumail as the man who broke their ill daughter’s heart but eventually come to embrace him; Romano manages to find just the right amount of awkwardness as his character gets to know Kumail, who appears to be the first Muslim he’s ever met, and Nanjiani’s script, while making the character squirm a little initially, clearly suggests that he now has a lot of fondness now for his father in law. Hunter is a little less effective, her sibilant Southern accent a little overplayed and her distrust of Kumail just a tad too abrasive. The magnificently, if less alliteratively, named Zenobia Shroff turns in a subtle and delightful performance as Kumail’s mother, who can’t quite accept that her son has just been going through the motions every time she tries to set him up with the next in a seemingly endless stream of beautiful Pakistani girls who just happen to drop by when the family are together for dinner. Slightly less effective are Kumail’s brother Nadeem (Adell Akhtar) and sister in law Khadija (Vella Lovell), who do their best but aren’t really given that much to do — Khadija’s part in particular is entirely under-written, and, one gets the feeling, could have been left out completely if Nanjiani hadn’t felt the need to include his brother’s wife in his film.
But what makes the film a real success is the comedy. Nanjiani, now an accomplished comedian, has managed to avoid the usual pitfall of not only romcoms but comedies in general — putting all the jokes in the first half-hour of setup, then going straight as the narrative plays out. But The Big Sick manages to stay funny, consistently and effectively, for its entire running order — even, remarkably, when it’s dealing with a comedian whose girlfriend is in a coma. Indeed, even when Kumail fails, woefully, to deliver the jokes in the biggest stand-up audition of his life, and Nanjiani, obviously digging deep into his memories of the true story of Emily’s illness, depicts a man barely holding himself together onstage, the film manages to find a way to remain thoroughly entertaining while at the same time being deeply affecting.
The Big Sick is, then, a very funny film, a beautiful tale made all the more remarkable that it is, in the end, a highly personal story, a film that is ultimately a love letter to a woman the creator clearly adores. And it’s brilliant.