Movie Review: The Big Sick (2017)
“The Big Sick” is the funniest movie I’ve seen in years. It’s the best romantic comedy I’ve seen in longer than that. Its humor is sometimes whimsical, sometimes brutal, but always honest. It moves like life but makes us laugh more.
I went in not knowing much—other than the movie was written by and starred Kumail Nanjiani, Dinesh of “Silicon Valley”—and if you’re like me and you like not knowing much of the story, stop reading now. Seriously. Come back after you’ve seen it. Spoiler alert redux.
My wife Patricia read a piece in The New Yorker about it, so she knew this much going in: “Sick” is based on Nanjiani’s relationship with co-writer, and now wife, Emily V. Gordon. That’s why it feels like life. It mostly is.
Boy meets girl’s parents
Nanjiani plays Kumail, a first-generation Pakistani-American and struggling stand-up comedian who makes a living as an Uber driver. He’s treading water but doesn’t seem to mind. Nanjiani isn’t a great actor but he often has an amused gleam in his eyes—like he’s holding onto a secret or a joke, and to share it would just be too good. Weekends he visits his parents in a Chicago suburb, and his mom is forever trying to fix him up with single Pakistani girls. He’s got a box at home with their photos. He calls it the Ex-files.
One night after his set, he’s talking up a cute girl, Emily (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia), who “whoo-ed” during his set, and he teases her about heckling him. She gives as good as she gets. Their repartee is charming. They sleep together that night, and as she’s getting ready to go, he objects: They haven’t had sex again yet. She: “I’m just not that kind of girl—I only have sex once on the first date.” They’re that rarity: the Hollywood movie couple who feel like they should be together.
Life proceeds. He’s up for a prestigious Montreal comedy gig, Mom keeps bringing in Pakistani girls for weekend dinners but he doesn’t let his parents know about Emily. It’s bad enough he’s an Uber driver/stand-up comedian rather than a doctor. But to date outside the religion? That would kill them. Or excommunicate him.
Eventually, Emily finds the Ex-files box, questions him, realizes he’s never told his parents they’re dating, and, in tears, asks if he can imagine a world in which they end up together. “I don’t know,” he says, so she ends it. Like the “Seinfeld” Band-Aid.
It would’ve ended there—without much of a story—but one night her roommate phones to tell him Emily is in the hospital. Why does the roommate send him? Why doesn’t she go? Who knows? At first, the illness doesn’t seem serious, then it does. The doctor, in fact, wants to put her in a medically induced coma, and Kumail is the only one who can give permission. A nurse informs him gravely that he should call her family. It’s a “shit gets real” moment and he’s not ready for it. He doesn’t know how to contact her parents, and, when he takes her phone by the bedside stand, he doesn’t know her password to get in. She’s unconscious next to him; so knowing what he’s doing is very, very unethical, he borrows her thumb. Shit gets real but remains funny.
The parents are Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), and when they show up they’re dismissive. They literally dismiss Kumail. This is the guy, after all, who hurt their little girl. Why is he even hanging around? But he stays.
The amazing thing? This is the brunt of the movie. It’s mostly about Kumail growing closer to Emily’s parents while Emily is in a coma. Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, girl winds up in medically induced coma, boy hangs out with her parents. For rom-coms, this is a breath of fresh air.
It helps, of course, that it’s Romano (the dry comedian as actor) and Hunter (the great actress who kills at angry, deadpan comedy). The looks she gives Kumail are priceless, but not as priceless as the moment she first walks into her daughter’s apartment, sees the familiar stuff, smells her daughter’s clothes. That's so touching. Later, we get this laugh-out-loud exchange between Romano and Nanjiani, one of many great ones:
Terry: Let me tell you something, Kumail. Love isn’t easy. That’s why they call it love.
Kumail: (Pause) I don’t really get that.
Terry: I know. I thought I could just start saying something, and something smart would come out.
Since I didn’t know this was based on real life—that the film’s co-writer is the woman in the coma—I kept going back and forth on what should happen. Obviously I didn’t want Emily to die. But would the movie be better for it? More memorable? Where could they go with the story if she survived?
Here’s where they go: The doctors finally figure out what’s wrong, she’s brought back, everyone’s happy, and she basically looks at Kumail and says, “Why are you here?” He’s grown in the relationship but she’s still back at square one.
“The Big Sick,” directed by Michael Showalter (“The Baxter,” “Wet Hot American Summer”), is a Judd Apatow production, which means it goes on a bit longer than it probably should: 119 minutes rather than the traditional 90 for rom-coms. But the extra time is taken up by life’s twists and turns, its ragged edges. And the movie still ends on a grace note that’s satisfying.
How lovely to get such a round portrait of this Pakistani family, too, which is both new to us and universal. The story of America is the story of assimilation; we encounter it over and over again in our history and literature—Irish-Americans, Southern-Americans, Jewish-Americans, African-Americans. Now this. When the great confrontation between Kumail and his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) finally arrives, he asks them, essentially: Why did you come to America? Why continue with the old ways when we arrived here for the new? It’s a winning argument that doesn’t win—not immediately anyway. More ragged edges.
I feel like I’m still not telling you the best stuff about “The Big Sick.” The best stuff is the comedy—including a 9/11 line that absolutely killed when the movie played the opening of the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival. I missed a lot because of the laughter ringing in the theater throughout the movie. I’m ready to see it again.