[This is a re-post of my The Big Sick review from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release on June 23rd and expands wide on July 14th.]
Kumail Nanjiani continues to emerge as one of the most unique voices in comedy today with his latest film, The Big Sick. I’ve enjoyed his work on Silicon Valley and I really dug his stand-up when I saw him perform at Fantastic Fest a couple years ago. He’s got a distinct personality, and he brings his memorable presence to The Big Sick, a rom-com that’s at turns painfully hilarious but always feels lived-in and honest thanks to Nanjiani and co-writer Emily V. Gordon speaking from experience. Rather than feeling like a polished version of reality, The Big Sick digs into the complexities of relationships while never losing Nanjiani’s comedy.
Kumail Nanjiani (the actor plays a character named after himself) is a struggling stand-up comic in Chicago when he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his shows. Although Kumail’s parents keep trying to push him into an arranged marriage with awkwardly staged family dinners, Kumail has mixed feelings about his Pakistani heritage, and feels a stronger connection to Emily than to any woman he meets through his parents. However, after a big fight between Kumail and Emily, Emily gets sick and has to go into a medically induced coma. As Kumail works through his feelings for Emily, he also strikes up an unlikely and awkward relationship with Emily’s parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter), who have come into town to care for their ailing daughter.
If you’ve ever seen any of Nanjiani’s stand-up, you can tell that this is his film through and through, and it’s fascinating to watch him work through his identity in a feature film but keep it lighthearted and funny. He even goes so far as to poke fun at artistic self-indulgence when Emily goes to see Kumail’s one-man show, which is about Pakistan. Not only does it mock the format of the one-man show, but it’s also a subtle way of expressing how he sees Pakistan as a place and culture separate from himself. He doesn’t want to disappoint his parents, but he feels no personal connection with that country or its heritage, so it becomes a list of factoids and idiosyncrasies rather than something that should determine the course of his love life.
Nanjiani is, unsurprisingly, absolutely terrific, and I hope that The Big Sick is the first of many films where he has a lead role. Kazan, as per usual, is equally impressive, and while the two actors don’t have the best chemistry, separately they’re good enough that you invest in them individually and therefore care about their relationship. Oddly, the strongest relationship in the film is the one that develops between Nanjiani and Emily’s parents. It’s a sly way to explore relationships not just between two relatively young people, but to show the fears and apprehensions that come with looking ahead at married life.
However, it’s all handled with a light touch thanks to Nanjiani’s sharp humor and the warmth that director Michael Showalter brings to every scene. The film is also supported by the tremendous performances, not just from Nanjiani and Kazan, but from Romano and Hunter, who bring a surprising dramatic heft to the picture. While they each get their moments to be funny, they also bring gravity to the situation and help better illustrate and challenge Kumail’s notions of what a romantic relationship should be. While some may balk at how a light-hearted rom-com transforms into a bit of a relationship drama in its second half, it’s a gamble that pays off big.
If there’s one glaring flaw with The Big Sick, it’s that it goes on a little too long, which isn’t too surprising when you consider that it was produced by Judd Apatow. In particular, the film has trouble trying to find an ending, and there are also moments where rather than letting the characters sit with a particularly heavy emotional beat, a character has to rush in with a joke to cut the tension. Thankfully, these kinds of missteps are few and far between, and it’s hard to argue with the film being too long when it’s consistently captivating.