‘The Big Sick’ Breaks Out Big At Sundance For Kumail Nanjiani

On Thursday I mentioned that the vibe here in Park City, Utah has, so far, seen people down and on edge because of our new president. As you might imagine, the inauguration on Friday made that vibe a little worse.

I only mention it because I’ve been in such a bad mood, too, I don’t know if I even trust my own judgment on a day like Friday. After seeing a movie I didn’t care for much – a movie I really had high hopes for – I openly wondered if maybe I’m in just such a lousy mood I’m not going to like anything right now? Anyway, my question was answered when I saw The Big Sick. I laughed. I cried. And for two hours I forgot about the rest of the world. The Big Sick is the first true Sundance breakout of the festival.

Directed by Michael Showalter (who becomes more deft with every film he directs), The Big Sick is based on the actual experiences of Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon (who both wrote the script, in the film Nanjiani plays a version of himself and Zoe Kazan plays Emily.)

Kumail is a stand-up comedian in Chicago who meets Emily one night during a set. Their courtship is derailed because Kumail’s parents still expect him to follow the Pakistani tradition of arranged marriages. And we see a parade of nights when Kumail’s mother has, once again, a “surprise guest” at dinner in the hopes this will be “the one.” Fearing expulsion from the family, Kumail never tells his parents that he’s dating an American woman. Unfortunately, he also never tells Emily that there’s probably no long-term future for them. So, yes, this causes friction.

Even though the title of the movie is a giveaway, while watching it’s easy to forget that someone is going to get sick. After Emily is admitted into the hospital with a mysterious infection in her lungs and put in a medically induced coma, Kumail has to try and bond with Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano both deliver amazing performances) who don’t like Kumail too much based on the whole “you broke our daughter’s heart because of all this prearranged marriage” business.

What starts as a not-at-all typical romantic comedy, now becomes something that’s heartbreaking at times, yet still very funny. (There’s one scene especially when Emily’s parents come to watch Kumail do his stand-up act to get their mind off of their daughter’s condition in which Holly Hunter’s Beth comes to blows with a heckler.)

While watching, I kept thinking about Trainwreck. The plots of these movies are nothing alike, but there’s a comedic vibe and a heart that both of these movies have. (And the fact that Judd Apatow produced both might have something to do with that.) And just like Trainwreck elevated Amy Schumer to being a household name, The Big Sick really could do the same for Kumail Nanjiani.

And I can’t stress enough just how good everyone is in this. Nanjiani is always excellent on Silicon Valley, but here he is as a true leading man. It’s not easy being the lead in a movie! This is not a skill most human beings have! Nanjiani has this skill. I always enjoy Zoe Kazan’s work, but this is one of my favorite performances of hers. (I realize her character being in a coma is a major plot point of this movie, but during those scenes her energy is missed.) Holly Hunter is, obviously, always great, but this is the funniest I’ve seen her in years. And I have a special place in my heart for non-Everybody Loves Raymond Ray Romano. I like it when he does “grittier” stuff like this. Who knoew one of my favorite performances at Sundance in 2017 would be from Ray Romano? (As a bonus, Aidy Bryant shows up and kills in the few scenes that she has as a fellow stand-up comic.)

While I was re-reading this for spelling errors (I promise I missed some, it’s very late) before I turn it in to my editor, I got the sense I was gushing a bit. Normally when I feel I’m gushing I go back and tone it down. But I’m not going to this time. The world makes me sad right now and here’s a piece of entertainment that made me happy. I’m gushing – so what? On a day like Friday, this is the movie I needed. So I’m going to gush away! I truly believe this movie will be a hit. It’s impossible not to like. And finding things to like right now can be a tough thing to do.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.