OnScreen Review: 'The Big Sick'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

It’s 2017 and we’re all about safe spaces, now, right? Short of beer chugging and having a deep knowledge of guns and cars, I like to think I’m a guy’s guy. I love sports. I love red meat. I love rock music. I love sci-fi, horror, and action movies. On the down low, though, I also quietly love a good romantic comedy (safe space!). It can be something classic (Sabrina), animated (Beauty and the Beast), mainstream (Sleepless in Seattle), or quirky (Punch-Drunk Love). The thing is, though, that I’m also pretty dismissive of a lot of romantic comedies. To me, the genre is very similar to horror in that hardcore fans of the genre will consume just about whatever is tossed their way, regardless of quality. Really, you could say this about any genre, but for horror and rom-coms that get a theatrical release, the bar seems so low. I just want something genuine and not too contrived. Horror movies and rom-coms are a dime a dozen. But every year, a handful manage to stand out. This year, the one that has caught the attention of many is The Big Sick, and it is indeed one of the stand outs of the year.

The film is based on the real-life story of Kumail Nanjiani and his (eventual) wife Emily V. Gordon; the two collaborated as co-writers on the script. Kumail plays himself, an aspiring stand-up comedian in Chicago who comes from a traditional Pakistani Muslim family. Born in Pakistan but raised in America, Kumail is torn between his American life and the traditions and customs of his family. Not a practicing Muslim, when visiting his parents for dinner and his father asks him to go pray so they can have desert, he spends the 5 minutes in the garage playing a game on his cell phone. He also has no interest in the tradition of arrange marriages, but will not reveal this to his parents because he is afraid he will be disowned (a real possibility). Because of this, he plays along when his mother invites a new Pakistani girl to “drop in” whenever he comes over for dinner, and keeping their headshots in a cigar box on his bureau.

His world changes when he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his stand-up performances. They connect instantly, and after a few hookups end up in a relationship. The growth of their relationship gets some clever back and forth banter about agreeing to never see each other again and a fun montage of relationship moments, but it’s not the primary focus of the story. In fact, for much of the film their relationship is up in the air. Shortly after a disruption in their relationship, he gets a call from her roommate saying that she is in the hospital and needs someone to stay with her for the night. He reluctantly agrees, but when Emily’s health takes a turn for the worse, Kumail is put in the awkward situation of having to make life or death decisions for her at the doctor’s insistence and Emily spends much of the film in a coma.

At this point, the film shifts to Kumail’s uneasy interactions with Emily’s parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter). Despite being told they don’t need his help and he is under no obligation to Emily, Kumail decides to linger and slowly develops a relationship with her parents as Emily fights for her life. Initially hostile to Kumail, Beth and Kumail eventually bond while stress eating, while Terry and Kumail connect almost immediately, if awkwardly. Romano is terrific as an older parent attempting to dispense wisdom he thinks will just appear in the moment.

Through all of this, Kumail’s stand-up work is in a process of upheaval, with the promise of success on the horizon. The film is a really great look behind the curtain of the mentality of stand-up comedians, similar to how part of Funny People were (Judd Apatow is a producer on this film) or the glimpses we get of it from shows like “Louie” on FX. The peek behind the curtain also reminded me of last year’s little gem, Don’t Think Twice. Kumail also has a one-man performance where he regales his audience with facts about Pakistan.

The brief stand-up routines we get involving him and his friends (played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and Kurt Braunohler) are funny and show how comedians incorporate their lives into their stand-up. There is a vulnerability that is necessary to going up on stage solo like that. Two important scenes happen when Kumail is on stage, one where he is heckled for his ethnicity and another where he breaks down because of the tenuous situation Emily is in. It’s raw and emotional and a genuine standout scene.

The film has a lot to say about culture clash, about honesty, about family, and about being a man. While most people in this country cannot relate to being Muslim or Pakistani and the idea of an arranged marriage is completely foreign to us, the fear of disappointing our parents is something a lot of people can relate to. The pressure parents put on their kids to conform to what they want for their life is relatable. People are “disowned” by their families for other reasons. It’s important to be honest with the people in your life, especially the ones you love, or else you might lose them. Through this unique situation, Kumail essentially grows up and learns to be honest with himself and others. This is reflected in many ways by the end, one of which is how his one man act changes to be personal and about himself (and far more interesting) rather than a history lesson about Pakistan.

What makes The Big Sick work so well is that it is a rom-com, but it’s personal and interested in the characters as much as the love story, as much as it exists in this film. In fact, one of the strengths of the film is that it is so well-rounded. The romance is obvious central to the story because it’s the connective thread for all of the characters, but rather than being the all-consuming focus of the film it is a piece of the whole. And because of that, it’s not just one of the best romantic comedies but one of the best films of the year. It’s the kind of romantic movie that makes you wish it wasn’t the exception, but the rule.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars