The Big Sick finds hilarity in its unlikely situation
Cozy but not cloying; funny without trying too hard.
That may sound like faint praise, but it’s mucho kudos for a romantic-comedy nowadays. And while the brown guy-meets-white girl story of The Big Sick isn’t as freshly American melting pot as it sounds, it does a sly job exploding a rom-com cliché—meeting those relatives-by-marriage Malcolm X once called “outlaws”.
Kumail Nanjiani plays a same-named version of himself—a Pakistani-American comic in Chicago who hooks up with Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) after she “woo-hoo!”s him during a set. Then, just after their relationship founders (she’s appalled that Kumail’s kept her a secret from his family, intent on an arranged marriage for him), she falls gravely ill.
Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon (it’s odd she’s renamed here but he isn’t), co-wrote the picture, based on their relationship’s unusual beginning. It doesn’t entirely capture their sparking in a bottle, though it avoids getting cutesily or cringingly deep into their coupledom. Both Pakistani immigrant culture and Kumail’s family are left as background—usually as material for his stand-up or wince-inducing one-man show—although, in a meta nod to his Bollywood starness, Anupam Kher, as Kumail’s father, gets to sing, and there are two smart takes on post-9/11 anti-Muslim prejudice.
What’s best is that usually flabby mid-section, where Kumail awkwardly befriends Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano, who gets the best lines—about tuna). It chummily, messily upends the typical meet-the-in-laws hokum. The eve of a major operation on Emily becomes an urban all-nighter: Mom and Dad, frazzled and on edge with dread filled hope, attend one of Kumail’s gigs, order pizza, guzzle wine, and stress eat the early morning hours away. While The Big Sick doesn’t tackle its title (is Kumail’s dishonesty the real sickness?), there was no way the studio was going to green light a film dubbed My (Only Recently Ex-) Girlfriend Is In A Coma And All I Got Was This Wacky Good Time With Her Parents. But that’s much of what we get. And that, plus the deep-down amiability, even near-Canadian decency, of this culture-mash comedy, proves to be, warm and fuzzily, enough.