Actor and comedian Kumail Nadjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon wrote a screenplay about their own very unusual courtship. With Michael Showalter directing, the film is called The Big Sick. It’s kind of a lame title—when filmmakers can’t think of what to call their movie, they have a bad habit of titling it The Big Something-or-Other. But anyway, that’s not very important, because the film is really good.
Nadjiani plays himself, a comedian trying to get his career off the ground in Chicago. Emily is played by the quirky and appealing Zoe Kazan. They meet after a show, and quickly hit it off, but both of them have reasons for being cautious. Kumail’s secret reason for not committing to the relationship is that his strict traditional family insists that he marry a Muslim, and to that end his mother is constantly inviting prospective brides to dinner. When Emily finds this out, she gets furious and breaks up with him. Soon after, he finds out that she’s been hospitalized with a very severe infection of an unknown nature, and the doctors put her into an induced coma while they struggle to find the right treatment.
Enter her parents, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. They come to Chicago from North Carolina to be there for their daughter. And having heard the whole story of the break up, they’re not too crazy about seeing Kumail hanging around. On his part, he knows he loves Emily, but is still afraid to tell his folks, who will certainly kick him out of the family when they find out.
This is what’s known as a romantic comedy, and in general it’s difficult for me to be pleased with romantic comedies as they are these days. The marketing alone in this case, with all the gushing associated with date movies, was enough to almost turn me off. But unlike most modern examples of this genre, The Big Sick is consistently funny, and not in the usual off-the-wall scattershot way that I’ve come to dread. This is the first feature film script by Nadjiani and Gordon, and the writing is so good. Occasionally the movie threatens to go soft and mushy, but then it gets funny again, just in time. Nadjiani’s acting, deadpan delivery, and comic timing are wonderful. The scenes with his family, satirizing the conservatism of Pakistani Americans, are hilarious. Showalter has such a sense of control here, and a true integration of humor into the themes of the story, that the film is a continual pleasure to watch.
Now, I’ve never really been into Ray Romano’s work—I don’t like TV sitcoms, usually—but in this film he plays a believable character, a guy with flaws who tries to be witty but isn’t, and in the process, amazingly, he is very funny. Holly Hunter also has some great scenes. In the meantime, the picture not only pokes fun at cultural differences, but at all the awkwardness around couples trying to work things out, and what commitment really is versus what we’ve come to falsely believe it is. Yet, and I must emphasize this, there’s not a single preachy moment in the picture. It’s a lesson in how to make a comedy without self-indulgence. The Big Sick doesn’t suck.