The Big Sick may be the latest entry in the Judd Apatow lifts gifted comics to the next level sweepstakes, but it is very much not a Judd Apatow film.
Written by Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, The Big Sick is the mostly true story of how the couple met, fell in love, broke up and would probably never have seen each other again if she hadn’t gotten so sick she needed to be placed in a medical coma.
Let’s start with rule breaking.
A standard, three act romantic comedy spends the first act with the couple meeting and falling in love. Act two produces obstacles that threaten to tear the couple apart and in act three the couple overcome the obstacles with hard work and lots of love to reach their happily ever after.
In The Big Sick, all the development that takes two acts is taken care in the first act.
Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) when she gives an enthusiastic ‘Woo-Hoo!’ during one of his gigs. His clever response – a thirty second dissertation on how even positive interruptions are heckling – leads to their getting together.
Neither plans on following up, but of course they do.
In this first act, we meet Kumail’s family – and their determination for him to marry a nice Pakistani girl (cue montage of pretty Pakistani girls ‘dropping in’ during Kumail’s family dinners).
Kumail loves his family and never quite works up the nerve to tell them he’s dating a white girl – and is not planning on marrying anyone they bring to meet him. At the same time, he collects the women’s headshots in a cigar box – but can’t bring himself to tell Emily about his family and their plans for him.
Then she finds the cigar box and… things go badly.
Shortly thereafter, Emily gets really sick and has to go into the hospital. A friend calls Kumail and asks if he would sit with her. When he arrives at the hospital, Emily is not pleased to see him, but as he’s leaving, a doctor asks if he’s her husband because she’s getting even worse and they need someone to sign a release so they can put her into a medically induced coma. Which he does.
Then he has to call her parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter) – who fly from New York to Chicago. Beth immediately freezes Kumail out, suggesting he might as well go home.
Over the second act, Kumail slowly gets to know Terry and Beth…
The Big Sick is based on the lives of its writers so we know they got together – that’s not even a question. The question is this – how on Earth did that happen?
After all, this isn’t just an interracial romance, it’s one in which an entire culture and two families are as important as the central couple.
We learn a lot about Kumail through his interactions with his family and Emily, but just as much as we learn from his stand-up gigs and his initially awful one-man show.
Humor is where he goes when things get tough – though after being dismissed by Emily’s mom (Hunter’s prickly performance should be recognized come awards season), the last place he should be is onstage. But there he is…
The Big Sick does something we don’t see often in romantic comedies – it gives both families almost equal time.
We understand why Beth is prickly and come to know why there’s tension between her and Terry.
We learn about Kumail’s parents – Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) – and how important Islam and tradition are to them.
Director Michael Showalter (Hello My Name is Doris) has written and performed in a number of films and TV shows and has a nice grasp of nuance, using the comic timing of his cast to lead into dramatic moments – and framing dramatic moments with unexpected laughs.
The Big Sick moves a bit more deliberately than the usual romantic comedy, but it’s dealing with a lot of themes romcoms rarely touch: race, religion, tolerance, the cutthroat world of stand-up comedy, the importance of family – and not doing a disservice to any of them.
It is, simply put, the best romantic comedy of the decade.
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