The Big Sick is basically a true story. I feel like you should know that going in. I didn’t, though I admit the signs were there. Like the fact that Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote the film with Emily V. Gordon (they’re married), plays a character named “Kumail Nanjiani.” In retrospect, that was definitely a tell. Fine, I’m an idiot. But thanks to me, you have the opportunity not to be.
I mention all this because knowing that The Big Sick is more or less true — in addition to being likable and intermittently hilarious — helps you forgive its biggest flaw, which is that it’s a bit messy. It plays like a charming combination of 50/50 and My Big Fat Greek (Pakistani) Wedding, with a dash of La La Land. Which is to say, Nanjiani’s character is forced to confront: 1) his overbearing Muslim family, 2) the sudden illness of his girlfriend, and 3) the everyday tragedy that is trying to balance a relationship with showbiz aspirations. That’s a lot for one movie, and if The Big Sick had been fully fictional I’d probably hold it against it for trying. But knowing that Nanjiani and Gordon (and director Michael Showalter) were trying to do justice to real life, and not just manipulate our emotions, it’s a lot more forgivable. Which is another way of saying that the movie’s messy because life is messy.
So the main character, “Kumail Nanjiani” (played by Kumail Nanjiani) is a Pakistani immigrant and struggling stand-up comic supporting himself by driving an Uber. One night he meets a nice lady, Emily (played by Zoe Kazan), when she heckles him during a show. They meet cutely and fall in love in a very nouveau, non-tradish way where the sex comes before the courtship — which might feel forced or performative in another movie (look how liberated we are!), but mostly just feels sweet and honest here. And hey, I get it, I’ve read a lot about making love to women, so I know these things can happen nowadays.
Trouble is, Kumail’s otherwise sweet parents really only want one thing out of him, and that’s for him to marry a nice Pakistani girl. It’s a big crescent to bear, harf harf, and Emily has her own insecurities, which Kumail dismisses during a blow up one night, yelling “I’m going up against a 1400-year-old culture, you were ugly in high school! It’s not the same!”
So there’s that, plus the siren call of a bigger comedy scene in another city, and a sudden illness that forces Kumail closer than he ever imagined with Emily’s parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Hunter turns in a typically charming Holly Hunter performance, but probably the biggest surprise here is Ray Romano, who goes above and beyond the (solid) sitcom acting we expect from him, in a role that is, dare I say it, potentially awards-worthy. There’s a heavy dose of the hangdog, henpecked husband we’re used to him playing, sure, but there’s also a whole other layer of pathos and humanity that this format allows him to fully explore. He reminded me a little of Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook, but…, well, honestly kind of better.
The Big Sick was produced by Judd Apatow, so it’s easy to blame him for it being probably 10-15 minutes longer than it needs to be. But looking past a few faults (one scene in particular, where Kumail gets heckled by a racist frat guy, doesn’t work at all) it has the same kind of spark as Don’t Think Twice or 50/50 — a movie that can balance tragedy without getting maudlin, family without getting schmaltzy, and comedy without feeling schticky.