OP-ROB RATING: ALL-STAR
“The Big Sick” is a romantic-comedy set in Chicago about a stand-up comedian named Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) who falls in love with an aspiring psychiatrist named Emily (Zoe Kazan). Kumail comes from a Pakastani Muslim family that fervently clings to certain traditions such as daily prayer and arranged marriage. Emily is the daughter of an odd couple comprised of a coarse East Carolina woman named Beth (Holly Hunter) and a deadpan Brooklyn native named Terry (Ray Romano). The movie starts off like any other rom-com with a zippy introduction that brings Kumail and Emily together as boyfriend and girlfriend. However, the relationship is fractured when Emily discovers that Kumail cannot commit to her because of his family’s insistence that he marry a Pakastani woman. They break up, and almost immediately afterwards Emily falls extremely ill and winds up at the hospital.
For one reason or another, Kumail is the first person to arrive at the hospital where the doctors tell him that Emily needs to be put into a medically induced coma for the safety of her vital organs. Soon after, Beth and Terry arrive at the hospital where they begrudgingly interact with Kumail. Beth is especially caustic toward her daughter’s ex-boyfriend. However, Kumail refuses to abandon the situation and spends the next several days visiting the hospital right alongside Beth and Terry. “The Big Sick” focuses mainly on their developing relationship.
Purely as a rom-com, “The Big Sick” isn’t noteworthy. First, the “romance” between Kumail and Emily barely gets going before they break up and she gets sick. Although I won’t reveal what happens to Emily, the denouement is skimpy on grand gestures. On the comedy side, there is an absence of laugh-out-loud moments in the film, which seems criminal regarding Kumail’s profession as a stand-up comedian. Adding intrigue to “The Big Sick’s” lackluster performance as a rom-com is the fact that it was produced by Judd Apatow. Over his career Apatow has directed and/or produced titles such as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”, “Knocked Up”, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Trainwreck” just to name a few. If anyone knows how to crank out a hilarious, yet subtly touching rom-com it would be Apatow.
It would seem that failing to impress its genre would doom “The Big Sick”. Yet, it doesn’t. Where “The Big Sick” transcends its tepid rom-com roots is through a finely tuned cast and an authentic approach to age-old, universal conflicts. While Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan are both charming in their respective roles, the real stars of the film are the parents. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano bring a startling intensity to the movie from their very first scene. As we discover later on, Beth and Terry have relationship struggles of their own, and looking back on the film you can detect that tension before we get to know them as characters. Although slightly less utilized, Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff are equally as effective portraying Kumail’s parents. There are a number of masterfully awkward, squirm-worthy scenes in which Mrs. Nanjiani invites eager young Pakistani women into family dinners to meet Kumail. “Look who just decided dropped in,” she’ll say when escorting the beautiful young women to a seat next to the unenthusiastic Kumail at the dinner table.
With such focused performances, “The Big Sick” delivers a number poignant moments between characters that cut right to the heart of complex arguments. For example, in one scene Kumail and his parents have a quarrel about his detestation of arranged marriage. When Kumail takes his stand, his parents respond by making the point that they forfeited a comfortable life in Pakistan to move to the United States. Furthermore, they allowed their son to pursue his dream as a stand-up comedian rather than pursuing a steadier career. With so much sacrifice the least Kumail could do would be to marry a Pakistani girl, right? In this scene you feel the weight behind each argument, and it pulls you apart. This scene is just one of many that have a paralyzing effect the viewer because of their honesty and passion.
Ultimately, I didn’t walk out of “The Big Sick” feeling uplifted or heart warmed. Rather, I felt shaken by the authenticity of many individual scenes. Even though I have next to nothing in common with any of the characters, I resonated with their problems in pieces of my own life. As is revealed in the credits, “The Big Sick” is based on Kumail Namjiani’s real-life story. Perhaps such an impressive level of clarity on such intricate struggles requires fact-based inspiration.