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‘The Big Sick’ film review: Kumail Nanjiani’s real-life romance makes for a heartwarming romcom

Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon tell the story of their cross-cultural romance with generous laughter and a teaspoonful of drama.

These are not merely political times, as The Big Sick actor Anupam Kher would agree, but times when sides must be taken and battle lines drawn.

Such sides exist in Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick too. On one hand, you have South-Asian immigrant parents who want nothing more than for their Americanised children to give in to the most obstinate desi tradition there is – to marry the partners chosen for them. On the other, you have the quintessential American dream that tells you to pursue your passion, even if it is comedy with little pay, and to find love in its cultural melting pot. Kumail Nanjiani, of Silicon Valley fame, plays a fictionalised version of himself stuck deftly in the middle, unable to pick a side.

In Chicago, Pakistani-American comic Kumail meets Emily, an aspiring therapist played with goofy charm by Zoe Kazan, after a lousy set one night. They connect, and keep connecting, even as Kumail’s parents are busy fishing for a suitable bride for their son. A bout of sickness lands Emily in coma, leaving Kumail to make a choice and own up to his feelings. Heckling and helping him along the way are Emily’s parents, played with effortless ease by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter.

The Big Sick (2017).

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the plot sounds like a John Green novel in progress, but it is actually a retelling of the real life romance between Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon. Written by the pair, the movie is not only a sensitive adaptation of what must have been a painful experience to go through, but it is also a story dealt with great empathy for all its characters. None of them come across as stock stereotypes, especially Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff who play the melodramatic but ultimately forgiving parents to Kumail and have the least amount of screen time. Their badly-acted pretence every time a suitable bride just shows up to family dinner, an oft-repeated scene in the movie, is particularly fantastic.

One of the delights of watching The Big Sick is to witness the largely unexplored terrain of a brown man bonding with his American girlfriend’s parents. Ray Romano plays the awkward father, a dork who is not quite as sharp-edged as his keen wife played by Holly Hunter. He struggles to spell the ailments plaguing his daughter, and she struggles to be kind to the man who broke her daughter’s heart. Together, they go from ignoring Kumail to befriending him, letting him into their own family vault of shameful secrets and embarrassing photographs.

Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff in The Big Sick. Image credit: Amazon Studios.
Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff in The Big Sick. Image credit: Amazon Studios.

It is particularly enjoyable to witness Nanjiani play out a narrative, torn between his love and parents, which Romano popularised with the all-heart sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. As the young and the slightly aged comic indulge in banter, it felt for one hot moment that Romano was transferring his everyday leading comic mantle onto a much deserving Nanjiani. They’re both regular-looking blokes whose arms hang unsure and awkwardly on their sides, and they speak with a nasal twang and a dopey rhythm. And they’re both confident comics who can infuse even the smallest scenes with the biggest laughs.

At the centre of The Big Sick is, of course, the interracial romance that begins charmingly, loses its footing and redeems itself over. It may feel like you’re being led into that trope again – watching the man grow up and take ownership of his life, even as the woman remains absent for a good deal of the movie’s lengthe. But given that the real Emily Gordon co-wrote the story, The Big Sick gives us a female lead in Kazan who casts a wide net when she’s on screen. She unapologetically steals laughs from her comic boyfriend, and is unafraid to rip into him one every time he gets a little too self-assured for her.

While Nanjiani often rambles off during his stand-up routines in the film, his deadpan comedy is at home in the movie, elevating it during its several uncomfortable interactions. He delivers the movie’s sharpest comic punches, often in the trickiest situations. He even manages to make you laugh in scenes you would feel awful for laughing at, allowing his comedy to come from a place of abject discomfort and awkwardness.

The quintessential choice every immigrant South-Asian child has to make, between tradition and passion, is one we have seen on the screen before. The spirited Bend It Like Beckham handled it as skillfully as David Beckham would a football. In The Big Sick, Michael Showalter manages to capture the essence of that struggle without unnecessary histrionics or spoofs, allowing even minor characters to shine and be funny. A special mention must be made for Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant who plays Kumail’s comic buddies and keep the laughter coming even when our leading man is down and out.

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