Sincerity, Humor Make “Big Sick” a Winner
Director Michael Showalter and his cast pull off an impressive high-wire act with The Big Sick, an account of the early days in the relationship between Pakistani comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily. The first act follows the usual rom-com beats but then the film abruptly shifts gears as one of the main characters becomes gravely ill. Trying to combine comedy and pathos is a tricky proposition, yet the talented cast is able to sell the humor that can be found in the most serious of situations while Showalter creates the perfect tone for these seemingly disparate narrative elements to co-exist.
Nanjiani plays himself in the film, the son of two Pakistani immigrants who expect that he follow their traditions, which includes his marrying a woman from their culture. His mother (Zenobia Shroff) is less than subtle when it comes to her efforts to fix him up with a proper match, these awkward encounters peppered throughout the film. Not only does he not want an arranged marriage but also Nanjiani does not want to be a lawyer, pursuing instead a career in stand-up comedy. While at a gig one night he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) and there’s an obvious spark between them. One thing leads to another and before you know it, they’re dating, a fact Nanjiani keeps from his parents. Things are going smoothly until Emily realizes her new beau has not spoken to his family about her, prompting her to end the relationship.
Shortly after this moment, the script abandons many of its rom-com trappings as Emily becomes deathly ill and is put into an induced coma so her body can better fight a serious infection. Nanjiani contacts her parents (a perfect Holly Hunter & Ray Romano), who initially keep him at a distance, but come to see that he truly loves their daughter. The film is at its best in its portrayal of the speed with which one’s life can be turned upside down by a debilitating disease as well as the sense of frustration and hopelessness felt by loved ones who are left to simply watch and wait. Hunter and Romano realize the stress and tension of this, and their character’s strained marriage, in a genuine, lived-in manner, as they deliver moments that ring painfully honest. Equally fine are Anupam Kher and Shroff, effectively underplaying feelings of betrayal and confusion in light of their son’s rejection of their traditions.
Kazan isn’t given much screen time but makes the most of what she has, while Nanjiani gives a surprisingly effective performance, a particular highlight being the moment he’s forced to perform on stage after receiving a dire piece of news concerning Emily. The ending is a bit soft and feels contrived, but that’s a slight flaw. The Big Sick is a minor miracle of a movie, a sincere film that somehow manages to move as well as amuse its audience, providing us an honest look at how we respond to joy and sadness as well as the many minor emotional notes in between.