The biggest surprise from The Big Sick is how unique it all feels. One part romantic comedy and one part family drama, the movie definitely treads familiar territory. But past its generic qualities, you’ll realize that the movie is not really about romance. Rather, it’s about cultural differences and familial expectations. In that sense, it feels a lot more personal than your typical genre film.
Which is too bad, because the name lends itself to some easy jokes if The Big Sick outright sucked.
The Big Sick opens as stand-up comedian Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani as himself) and counselling student Emily (Zoe Kazan) fall in love and enter a relationship. But after a mysterious illness forces Emily into a medically-induced coma, Kumail must confront Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), and come to terms with what he wants from his love life.
The movie is loaded with a handful of other stars, including BAFTA winner Adeel Akhtar, Bollywood superstar Anupam Kher, and YouTuber-turned-comedian Bo Burnham. There’s not much to complain about regarding the performances; the typecasting is extremely noticeable, especially for veteran actors like Hunter and Romano. That said, at least all the actors fit their roles adequately.
But the star of the show is clearly Nanjiani, who wrote the script with his wife, Emily V. Gordon. The story is, after all, a fictionalized version of their real-life relationship. Having the actual Kumail Nanjiani as our lead only cements his importance to the plot of the film, as we follow him through his career struggles, his love life, and his family.
Kumail’s main conflict stems from choosing between what he wants and what his family wants for him. As per tradition, Kumail’s mother (Zenobia Shroff) expects Kumail to be a good Muslim, marry a Pakistani woman and find a steady job. As a result, she constantly tries to set up Kumail with women while asking him to consider taking the LSAT. Religion, marriage and employment: the complete trifecta of conservative Asian values.
Or as I prefer to call it, The Asian Familial Dream.
Yet even at the risk of being disowned, Kumail has no interest in fulfilling these expectations. He doesn’t pray, dates white women and focuses solely on his career as a comedian. There’s a legitimacy to Kumail’s desire to live a different lifestyle. As Kumail puts it, what’s the point in immigrating to America if you don’t intend to adopt American values?
However, Kumail still has much to learn. He doesn’t value other people’s time, and he makes empty promises for things that he will never give. But in bonding with Emily’s parents, who also have their own marital problems, he realizes how love requires effort and trust, not apathy and secrecy.
And along the way, there are some explosive jokes that may cause you to burst into laughter.
Of course, comedy is subjective. And while I don’t think any of the jokes bomb, people will inevitably differ on what they find funny. One can even argue that this film isn’t funny at all. But when I watch comedies, I don’t go into the movie asking, “Is it funny?” The question I prefer to ask is, “Why is it funny?”
The heart of its humour is how foreign cultures are something that Westerners can relate to, even if its traditions are not worth estranging someone over. By hiding his family’s insistence on arranged marriage, he ends up alienating Emily and her family. It is only after he faces his own insecurities that he is able to move forward with his life and pursue his dreams.
Likewise, despite their vehement disapproval, Kumail’s parents still love him very much. Family is weird like that, and nothing in the world is unforgivable. In time, they will come to acknowledge his life choices, regardless of how they feel about them.
My only major qualm with The Big Sick is its utter lack of cinematic flair. As Tony Zhou has pointed out in his video essay on visual comedy, the Hollywood comedy has lost its creative spark. And like all the Judd Apatow productions that came before it, The Big Sick is just as visually underwhelming.
But once the laughter dies down, the good bits generally shine the brightest. Like a solid comedy routine, The Big Sick has a personality that sets it apart from other comedies. It’s a comfy crowd pleaser, one that juggles comedy and drama effectively.
It’s not much of a headliner, but the jokes will keep you smiling long after the curtains close.