The love story at the center of the romantic comedy The Big Sick is so incredible, hauntingly honest and hilariously heartwarming, if it was not 100-percent true, you would never believe it happened. That is just the tip of the iceberg of awesomeness that is Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s film.
Set in Chicago, The Big Sick commences as Ninjiani is working to make it as a stand-up comic. Yes, that really means that his rent is paid by his side gig as an Uber driver. He also is dealing with pressure from another side of his life and that is his family. Born in Pakistan, the Ninjiani clan moved to America when he was young to ensure he had a better life. It is handled in a delightfully humorous way (and just one element of the comedic thread that continues throughout), but his parents are not pleased at his career choices and his avoidance to settle down and accept an arranged marriage like his brother has done and has been done in their culture forever.
Then, he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan). She is American. She is blonde. She is nothing like what his parents see in a future for him. But, they hit it off and start a romance that appears to be the real deal. Then, a few things happen that make it quite clear that this meant-to-be relationship isn’t. Mostly, it has to do with his relationship with his parents and the centuries of cultural expectations that are being thrust upon him. Completely blindsided by this lack of a future possibility, Emily leaves Kumail and they go their separate ways.
The universe intervenes when Ninjiani gets a call in the middle of the night. His ex-girlfriend is sick. She’s in a medically induced coma and her friend has to leave her side and he is the only one this friend can think of to call, come see Emily and more importantly, inform her parents. Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) arrive at the hospital, take over handling this grave situation from the ex-boyfriend and then after a while they start to wonder: Why is he still here? There’s a laundry list of answers, but the most concise one is fate.
It is through Kumail and his evolving relationship with Emily’s parents that the couple’s love story truly picks back up. From a storytelling means, that is extremely difficult to capture. The Big Sick, through Gordon and Ninjiani’s script and Michael Showalter’s pitch perfect direction, manages to be a romantic comedy unlike we’ve seen in some time. That is due to the fact that one of our leads in this amorous and witty dance is in a coma for an entire act and a half.
It works due to two things. The first is Kazan’s powerful presence and chemistry with Ninjiani in the first act that her spirit is ever-present during this period that allows us to see why Kumail would fight to remain by her side. It also magically comes together due to the fact that the three remaining actors in this fantastic foray into the human spirit and heart are Hunter, Romano and of course our leading man. Hunter is a spitfire, as she tends to be on and off screen. She is the first to buck at Ninjiani’s presence in the hospital and she is the last to be won over by his commitment to her daughter. Romano is a revelation. He, and Hunter for that matter, deserve Oscar nods for their brave performances as parents grappling with the unthinkable. The Everybody Loves Raymond star gives the performance of his career.
Witnessing the three of them as they become, essentially, a family is such bliss. The script, the direction, the actors… they’re all on point in every sense of the word and on every level they need to be. It is beautiful. It is humanity at its finest. It is such a gift to witness people, being there for people, regardless of the past, present or yet unwritten future.
Of course, Ninjiani’s family begins to wonder what has happened to their son. The audience knows at some point there will have to be a confrontation and everything that that will exponentially bring. This is where The Big Sick elevates. It transcends culture. What he goes through with his Pakistani family not only sheds light into a Muslim household and a foreign way of doing things, but it shows that we are all not so different. We all wrestle with parental expectations and the cultural origins of such beliefs.
The actors who make up Ninjiani’s family are just as stellar as Romano and Hunter. Anupam Kher nails the understanding, yet demanding father Azmat and Zenobia Shroff shines as his tough but loving mother Sharmeen. Adeel Akhtar Naveed is terrific as the brother who must straddle these two factions. He too is a child of America and can see why his brother would want to be a comic and maybe marry someone outside of the Pakistani world. But, he himself needs to validate the decisions he made by agreeing to an arranged marriage and pursuing a successful career that was the wish of his parents.
Kazan and Ninjiani had the most unique of challenges and rose to it completely. They had to show us the falling in love, the breaking up and then an entire act where Kazan is unconscious. A medical crisis will change things, regardless of the starting situation. What Kazan and her screen partner in this cinematic (albeit taken from real life) love affair do when she wakes up is such a tough task. It is incredible how they do triumph with it. Knowing that the couple at the center of this story have written the movie, we know that clearly they are together — one knows going in they are going to make it. But, regardless of that fact, nothing is treated as a given. We don’t assume that fact at any point until the closing credits.
That salute belongs firmly on the performances of our two leads. They are a gift to the love story that is Ninjiani and Gordon. The movie would not work without them and what they innately have is not something that is earned or worked towards. It comes naturally. It had to, because that is what happened in real life.
The Big Sick is a quite funny, tough and realistic — but tender — look at life through the eyes of culture, modern societal realities and in the end the timeless realization that the heart wants what the heart wants.