Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy makes mistake. Girl dumps boy.
While Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick” sprinkles these familiar rom-com tropes with enough heart, humor and charm to make it a quality romantic comedy, it’s only when Showalter and husband-and-wife co-writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon turn the rom-com formula on its head that this film becomes a classic entry in the genre.
Unlike most movies of its genre, “The Big Sick” focuses on what happens between the obligatory break-up and the win-her-back finale. Whereas most rom-coms rush through the interval between those plot points, this film lives in it.
Girl gets life-threatening infection. Boy signs form allowing doctors to put girl in a medically induced coma. Boy meets girl’s parents while waiting for girl to wake up. Boy’s parents demand he have an arranged marriage with a Pakistani Muslim girl, object to him dating a white non-Muslim. These storylines are far from hallmarks of the romantic comedy genre, yet they’re what makes “The Big Sick” one of the best romantic comedies of the decade.
Inspired by Nanjiani and Gordon’s actual relationship, “The Big Sick” casts Nanjiani as his younger self, a 20-something Pakistani-American comedian moonlighting as an Uber driver to supplement evening gigs at Chicago’s comedy clubs. Kumail’s parents (Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher), already disappointed that their son picked comedy over law school, are determined to marry him to a suitable Pakistani Muslim girl.
Those plans are upended entirely however when Kumail meets Emily (a fantastic Zoe Kazan), a white grad student and aspiring therapist who is neither Pakistani nor Muslim but steals Kumail’s heart nevertheless.
Yet even as he falls in love with Emily, Kumail struggles with the cultural divide between his family’s expectations for him and the Western dreams and desires Emily represents. This cultural conflict comes to a head and the two break up – and the real movie begins.
Not long after the breakup, Emily gets a serious infection and Kumail has to sign her into a medically induced coma. When Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) arrive at the hospital to find that Emily’s ex gave permission for her coma, comedy, tragedy and cultural misunderstandings ensue in equal measure.
As compelling as this true-to-life setup is, the movie really soars because of the performances that drive it. Nanjiani, known for his role as Dinesh on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” is characteristically funny, but also more charming than fans of the hit sitcom might expect. And Kazan is winning as his on-screen Emily Gordon, although one can’t help but feel disappointed that the real Gordon didn’t star alongside her husband.
The true gems are Romano and Hunter as Emily’s parents. Channeling their respective strengths to their full potential, both veteran actors capture the agony of a parent helplessly watching their child in pain. Don’t be surprised if either or both get Oscar buzz for their roles.
While “The Big Sick” is bound to get plenty of buzz due to its timely subject matter – it’s hard to imagine a better answer to the Islamophobia of Trump’s America than this movie – it’s important to note that this isn’t an overtly political movie. It is first and foremost a romantic comedy, one that should be enjoyable regardless of your political views. Hysterical, heartbreaking and ultimately heartwarming, you’d be hard-pressed not to fall in love with “The Big Sick.”
"The Big Sick"
★ ★ ★ ★ (out of 4 stars)
Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter star in rom-com based on real events about the cultural conflicts that arise when a Pakistani-born aspiring comedian and his American girlfriend's parents deal with her mysterious illness. 119 minutes. Rated R for strong language including sexual references.