Movie Review: “The Big Sick,” with Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, and Zenobia Shroff
I have never felt more represented onscreen than by Kumail Nanjiani’s character in The Big Sick. There is no comparison for it—and that is a great thing. The Big Sick is a film with an extremely particular religious and cultural point of view but universally honest, poignant things to say about love, and it is a soothing balm for the insanity of our world right now. If the future of the romantic comedy genre is in hyper-specific slices of life like The Big Sick, then sign me up immediately.
The film is a fictionalized, timeline-tweaked version of Nanjiani’s relationship with real-life wife Emily V. Gordon; the two wrote the movie together, one of many creative partnerships on which the two have collaborated. While Nanjiani plays himself in the film, Zoe Kazan plays Emily. The two of them have undeniable, revoltingly cute chemistry, and you’ll fall in love with each of them in turn.
The story is told mostly from Nanjiani’s point of view: Kumail (Nanjiani, of Flock of Dudes) is struggling to make it as a stand-up comic in Chicago, sneaking in short sets when club owners let him, working on new material in between Uber shifts, and hitting on girls with a cheesy move that involves writing their name in Urdu. His Pakistani heritage is obviously part of his identity—he’s working on a one-man show about his immigration experience—but he and his parents, father Azmat (Anupam Kher, also Jess’s dad from Bend It Like Beckham!) and mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), differ drastically in terms of religious adherence and familial expectations.
For Azmat, it’s how Kumail presents himself—“You should be stylish like your father … just observe me”—whereas for Sharmeen, it’s not only that Kumail hasn’t yet taken the LSAT, but that he has shown zero interest in the Pakistani-American women she keeps inviting over. “I wonder who that could be,” she says whenever there’s a knock on the door, but every woman is there at her invitation, and none of them interest Kumail. Each photo gets tossed in a box in his barely furnished room in his crappy apartment, the subject of the portrait never to be thought of again.
The only woman who really captures his attention is Emily (Kazan, of What If), a graduate student in psychology who calls him on his terrible Urdu move and opens up her life to him. But she’s white—and for Kumail’s family, dating isn’t even allowed, let alone with someone who isn’t Pakistani. “It’s like he’s dead, or worse,” Kumail notes of a cousin who married a European woman. It’s just not done, and so Emily must remain a secret, until a deadly infection forces her into a medically induced coma and throws Kumail into contact with her parents, Terry (Ray Romano, of Ice Age: Collision Course) and Beth (Holly Hunter, of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).
They’re angry, confused, and afraid, and Kumail’s presence isn’t helping things. He is the person who broke their daughter’s heart, and yet his continued appearance at the hospital is perplexing and inexplicable. And yet, Kumail can’t think of being anywhere else or doing anything else—a realization that affects not only the trajectory of his career, but his relationship with his unsuspecting parents, too.
As a first-generation Iranian-American whose cultural heritage overlaps so much with Kumail’s—Shia Muslim faith; arranged marriage as the only kind of marriage; familial expectations that only allow medicine, law, or engineering as viable career choices—I can confidently say that no movie has ever captured the nuances of my identity like The Big Sick. I have had these arguments with my parents; I have cried those tears of loneliness and frustration; I have realized that it may be impossible for the choices I’ve made to be approved of by the people I want to love me the most. It is extremely cathartic and moving to see those experiences given attention, humor, analysis, and affection in The Big Sick—to have Muslim and Middle Eastern lives, with all their distinctions and complexities, reflected and developed on the big screen.
The Big Sick succeeds because the multifaceted portrayals of Kumail and his parents are joined by some career-high performances from Romano and Hunter. The former is in peak dad mode, with a kind of gentle cluelessness that shows when he asks Kumail “So, uh, 9/11?” and a wary devotion to Beth that demonstrates decades of marriage. And Hunter is, quite honestly, perfect—she’s ferocious and loving, compassionate and stubborn, and her late-night chat with Kumail about how her family rejected Terry at first is wistful and contemplative. An Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress wouldn’t be out of the question.
There are so many other things The Big Sick offers up to audiences—welcome humanity and understandable anger from those girls Kumail keeps rejecting because he’s too nonconfrontational to stand up to his mother; cutting-yet-comical commentary on the treatment of Muslims and Middle Easterners in post-9/11 America; a winning tug-of-war between Kumail and Emily as they date, with zingers from her like “I love when men test me on my taste”—and very little of it isn't enjoyable. Maybe the movie goes on 10 minutes too long; maybe a few of Kumail’s comedian friends aren’t developed enough. But those are seriously minor issues in an otherwise best-of-2017 film. “Can you imagine a world in which we end up together?” Emily asks Kumail in a pivotal moment. I’m so happy that we can.