Most romantic comedies try to sell us a fantasy: True love conquers all, there’s one perfect person out there waiting for us, happy endings are real. But alone among Hollywood genres, they also advocate a relatively optimistic vision of human nature. In other types of films, war, crime, death, torture, sadness and deceit run free. But rom-coms argue that, deep down, we’re all basically good people with pure hearts. Falling in love is an act of faith—a belief in the decency of another person—and so we go to the theater not just to witness a courtship but also to reaffirm that there’s something beautiful in finding someone.
The Big Sick can sometimes be awfully conventional, but among its key assets is its radiant view of its characters. Based on the first year in the relationship of married screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, this indie rom-com has a mildly risky structure and some trenchant observations about the culture clashes that go on in immigrant families living in America. But what cuts deepest is just how profoundly lovable these people are. That’s not the same as being cutesy: Rather, The Big Sick is defiantly generous, understanding that people are horribly flawed but also capable of immeasurable graciousness when the situation requires. So even when the film stumbles, these characters hold you up.
Nanjiani plays a lightly fictionalized version of his younger self, a struggling Chicago stand-up who is having as much success in his career as he in his dating life. Born into a Pakistani family who moved to the United States when he was a boy, he’s a dutiful son, despite lying about being a practicing Muslim and politely deflecting the attempts of his parents (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff) to set him up in an arranged marriage.
That’s when he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan), an American grad student with whom he’s instantly smitten. She swears she doesn’t want a relationship, but soon they fall for one another—even though Kumail knows it can’t work out. If he told his parents about Emily, they’d disown him. That’s not hyperbole: Kumail’s brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) reminds him that other Pakistani-American families they know have turned their back on children who romanced people outside of their culture. Kumail has major misgivings about a way of life that’s far less progressive than the America where he was raised, but he can’t risk losing his parents’ love.
Produced by Judd Apatow—who’s made a cottage industry out of mixing frank, R-rated comedy with dramatic, emotional moments—The Big Sick undergoes a tonal shift after Emily discovers that Kumail has kept their relationship a secret from his family. When she breaks up with him, it’s easily the film’s least-believable moment, simply because it’s the only scene in which any of the characters are mean to one another. Before then, Nanjiani and Kazan effortlessly establish an adorable rapport, playing two bright young people who are turned on by each other’s wit and sweetness as much as they are by their physical attractiveness. They’re by no means a perfect couple—he says the wrong thing at times, she hides from him a failed marriage—but Kumail and Emily make you root for them, in part because they’re such inherently good people.
But after the breakup, Kumail learns through friends that she’s contracted a mysterious illness that progresses so rapidly that she has to be placed in a medically induced coma. Since her parents live in North Carolina, it falls on Kumail to call them, summoning Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) to Chicago to decide what to do next for her.
Nanjiani and Gordon’s screenplay splits into two halves—in the first, Kumail dates Emily, while in the second, he spends anxious days with her parents. In both sections, Kumail is trying to win someone over, and it’s beautifully awkward to watch him navigate Beth and Terry’s wariness. (Terry feels alienated from the guy because of his Middle Eastern background, while Beth instantly hates him on her daughter’s behalf.) But it’s both this film’s charm and its lingering limitation that, because The Big Sick loves its characters so much, we don’t really ever doubt that Kumail and Emily’s parents will begin to find common ground. Eventually, Beth will see what a puppy-dog loyal guy he is. And Terry, eternally frazzled and ineffectual, will find in Kumail a comrade-in-arms when dealing with the feisty Beth, with whom he’s been quietly warring for years.
As directed by Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris and They Came Together), Kumail’s story is littered with grace notes. It’s a film that’s observant about all the small ways that individuals learn how to make the best of bad situations—whether it’s a stalled comedy career, the pleasant badgering of overbearing parents, or the realization that you may have met the love of your life and blown it.
In turn, the performances are endearingly ragged to emphasize the characters’ rumpled frailty. Hunter and Romano bring grownup weariness to the movie, credibly playing a couple living through a testily agreed-upon truce that used to be a loving marriage. Nanjiani’s deadpan comic timing is a constant delight—you can see his character thinking before he speaks, carefully considering different responses to what he witnesses, and often choosing poorly. And Kazan manages to create a layered portrayal in a short amount of time, which is crucial considering Emily’s absence is meant to haunt The Big Sick’s second half.
But despite the film’s nervy twists, Showalter and the writers often adhere a little too closely to indie rom-com tropes. Kumail’s quest to find creative fulfillment plays out predictably, and even The Big Sick’s bittersweet, ain’t-life-something tone recalls plenty of previous Apatow productions. The movie is funny/sad without ever necessarily being revelatory or incisive. For better or worse, it’s very much like its protagonists: deeply, reliably nice. In fact, what’s most radical about The Big Sick is its optimistic insistence that a little niceness can make all the difference. As far as Hollywood fantasies go, it’s not without its merits.
Director: Michael Showalter
Writers: Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar
Release Date: June 23, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.