by Ken Bakely
A worse version of Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick would have been spoiled by the opening credit “Written by Kumail Nanjiani & Emily V. Gordon.” The film would have been anticlimactic, seeking emotional resonance and validity in scenes which we knew would not carry them. Instead, it is beside the point that the screenplay is a fictionalized account of the writers’ relationship. That Nanjiani portrays his on-screen persona is not a ploy as it may have been; it makes the material more palpable and genuine. That Gordon does not, and the Emily of the script is instead played by Zoe Kazan and has a different surname, reminds us to view the work as a movie first.
It is a funny and effective one, crafting its characters with perceptiveness. Kumail is an up-and-coming stand-up comic, Emily is training to become a therapist. They get along well, perhaps because they are reluctant to enter into a relationship to begin with. His strict, traditional, Pakistani parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) intend for him to enter into an arranged marriage. He lies to them about Emily, he lies to Emily about them. This can’t sustain itself. The couple breaks up, but soon after, Emily falls ill and is entered into a medically-induced coma. Kumail becomes a constant presence at the hospital, and comes to know Emily’s folks (Helen Hunt and Ray Romano).
The Big Sick is marketed as a romantic comedy, but it’s more of a character study. Kumail is forced to reconcile the disparate parts of his life – the expectations of his family versus what he wants to pursue; the walls he’s been constructing around the people in his life versus what he’s actually affected by – and the film extracts its worldbuilding from there. What makes it work is that it’s not really about the relationship. Perhaps this is inescapable, because Emily is comatose for a majority of the runtime, but the approach leads to us looking back and examining the plot as a journey, not a series of conceits. There is a real sense of dramatic satisfaction, as the script moves far beyond the questions of whether Emily will emerge from the coma, and whether she and Kumail will get back together.
In real life, we know how this ended. I will not say what happens in the movie. Of course, it could have all been changed. But The Big Sick succeeds on the notion that any resolution would have felt complete, because we believe in these people. They are multilayered and complicated. They feel real. This is not only a credit to the strong writing, but the strength of the acting. Nanjiani is a versatile lead actor, and he works well with his co-stars. There is a special glimmer to his scenes with Romano. As their respective characters bond under difficult circumstances, the strangeness of communication with a backdrop of uncertainty is superbly conveyed.
When it comes to this transitive state that Kumail lives in, one scene comes to mind. He is onstage, performing his standup set at a comedy club. It’s an important moment, because the presence of an important agent means that it’s also an audition for the Montreal comedy festival. He starts with the first words of his routine, and then he strays. He’s spilling his guts, telling them everything that’s going on. No jokes. They react with silence. What else could they do? He’s on the verge of tears, smiling only when he realizes the incredulousness of the situation he’s in. In a different movie, this would have seemed on-the-nose and phony. But here, Showalter has established a dynamic. Nowhere else can Kumail find an emotional release. And even if it’s in front of a crowd of strangers, and the price tag is him blowing a massive opportunity, it still must happen.
No movie takes place in the real world. The Big Sick is no exception. It comes up with these big moments as sweeping turning points. But we still recognize and identify with them. The movie is too long, with a pattern of stand-up, hospital, and home scenes dragging down the second act. Yet the film never loses us. It has gained our trust with its kindness and humanity, with the firm hand it places on its characters as they navigate even that which can seem impossible. What an achievement. It deals in concepts instead of generalizations, in events instead of tropes. It’s not subtle, but it’s not intended to be. Showalter leaves nothing on the table. Better yet, he’s unapologetic about it. And he makes us laugh, too.