A struggling Chicago stand-up comic and Uber driver named Kumail, played by the terrifically talented Kumail Nanjiani (Dinesh on Silicon Valley), is poleaxed by the news that his girlfriend Emily (Zoe Kazan) has fallen unexpectedly and inexplicably ill. While doctors look for answers, she lies in a medically induced coma. Hard to believe? Nope. Nanjiani and his wife/co-screenwriter Emily V. Gordon carved this romantic comedy out of her personal hospital experience and their own culture-clash relationship. Their hilarious and heartfelt script has a rare authenticity that pulls you in and keeps you glued to the screen.
Boy meets girl when she flirtatiously heckles him during his club act. Their mutual attraction grows into something deeper, but Kumail keeps stalling about introducing this white girl, who’s majoring in psychology, to his strict Muslim family. Anytime the comic comes home for dinner, his father (Anupam Kher) and mother (Zenobia Shroff) trot out another suitable Pakistani woman in the hope that their son will participate in his own arranged marriage. It’s a credit to the film that the old-world ties to his family and their culture still tug at this assimilated young man; no wonder Emily resents being kept at arm’s length from the people that matter most to the man she loves. But Kumail keeps his feelings in check, except in deadpan comedy routines in which he lists the preferred order of career choices for a young Pakistani man: “doctor, engineer, lawyer, ISIS, comedian.”
The couple hit a stalemate and she breaks up with him in a scene that resonates with raw humor and injured feelings. Then Emily is hospitalized, and Kumail comes face to face with her fiercely devoted parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (the sublime Holly Hunter), a North Carolina couple having their own marital issues. Each of them resents him for hurting their daughter; each of them gradually begins to see this stranger as vulnerably human. Nothing simple here. Pain has a way of resisting comfy clichés.
Romano and Hunter inhabit their roles beautifully, their blunt honestly helping this culturally conflicted commitment-aphobe to open his heart. And Nanjiani is a revelation, investing his role with grit, grace and touching gravity. Anoyone who’s watched Silicon Valley or seen him in supporting roles knew the comedian was funny, but the depth of emotion he unveils here shows his career as an actor has only just begun.
Kudos to director Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer) for keeping The Big Sick‘s shifting tones in perfect balance. And a tip of the hat as well to co-producer Judd Apatow for giving the film just the right comedic context as Kumail interacts – sometimes generously, sometimes selfishly – with stand-up pals played by Bo Burnham, Kurt Braunohler and SNL‘s Aidy Bryant. Still, it’s Nanjiani and Gordon who raise the bar on romcoms by seeing relationships (and the families wrapped up in them) as the bruising business they are. The Big Sick is the frankest and funniest date movie around, but be warned: You’ll laugh till it hurts.