The Big Sick stars Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail, a Pakistani immigrant living in the US and working as an Uber driver, while moonlighting as a stand-up comedian. Or is that the other way around? The movie was also written by Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, and is based on the strange turn of events that led to them becoming a romantic item. In short: they got together, they broke up, she had to be put in a medically induced coma and then they got back together.
The movie starts out as a breezy, cross-cultural romance. Kumail’s family are orthodox Muslims, and his mother is so determined to see him married to the right Pakistani girl, that at every evening meal a new potential wife just happens to drop by, sometimes accompanied by her parents. Then Kumail meets Emily at one of his stand-up gigs and his general indifference to arranged marriage turns into something altogether more awkward, as he has to choose between tradition and his freedom as an American.
This all sounds rather serious, but it isn’t. The dialogue between Kumail and Emily, played by Zoe Kazan, is so effortless and so amusing that watching the movie is like spending time with the most adorably funny people you’ve ever known, on their best day. If the movie had carried on in this vein, The Big Sick would have succeeded perfectly as a light romantic comedy, with modern day star-crossed lovers. But then things get dark, and a whole lot more interesting.
Emily falls sick, in a big way, and Emily’s parents, played memorably by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, join Kumail at her side, and ultimately the three of them bond. It is here that the movie strikes its richest comedic vein, as despite the unfortunate turn of events, Kumail cannot turn off his joke reflex. At one point, trying to look on the bright side, he points out that Emily is in the good kind of coma, ‘you know in the way that you can have good gremlins and bad gremlins.’
But far edgier is the undercurrent of racial prejudice that fizzes hilariously to the surface of this movie more than once. For example, the relationship that develops between Kumail and Terry, Emily’s Dad, starts off on shaky ground with one of the most brilliant and near the knuckle passages of dialogue in the movie. Terry says that he has always wanted to find out what someone like Kumail thinks about 9/11. After a startled moment Kumail replies that ‘of course it was a tragedy. We lost nineteen of our best guys.’
The Big Sick doesn’t stop at mocking the prejudice of white Americans, however. Kumail has much to say about Pakistani culture and, as he would have it, their failure to fully integrate into the countries they have chosen to call their own. As he points out with undeniable logic when his mother disowns him for refusing to accept an arranged marriage, ‘Why did you bring me to America, if you didn’t want me to behave like an American?’
Such insights would be almost gasp inducing were Nanjiani not so perfectly placed to make them. And anyway, the movie is based on his life so he can say whatever he likes about his family and his (future) wife.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about The Big Sick is the way in which it manages to take three separate narrative threads, all of which would have made satisfying movies in their own right – Kumail’s relationship with Emily and her family, the cultural breaking point he reaches with his own family, and his promising career as a stand-up comic – and weaves them so effortlessly together. That it does so while cracking a joke a minute is only the cherry topping on this gorgeous, multi-layered gateau.
The Big Sick is funny, daring, timely, and supremely lovable.
4.5 / 5