The Big Sick (Michael Showalter, 2017) 4 out of 4 stars.
Co-written by real-life romantic partners Emily V. Gordon (Comedy Central’s The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail) and Kumail Nanjiani (same show, plus HBO’s Silicon Valley, and many more), The Big Sick is loosely based on the couple’s culturally fraught courtship, in which Nanjiani’s Pakistani Muslim family must come to terms with his love of a non-Muslim white American. Winner of the Audience Award within the “Festival Favorites” category at this year’s SXSW festival (which is where I saw it), the film is a charming affair, mixing comedy and tragedy (mostly the former) in a manner both droll and poignant. Directed by Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris), The Big Sick stars Nanjiani as himself (or a version thereof), joined by Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks) as Emily. Together they have a genuinely sweet chemistry, meeting cute, falling in love almost instantly, then spending the rest of the film battling against the traditional values that get in their way.
The title comes from an illness that strikes Emily halfway through, forcing Kumail to reconsider his priorities. Since he’s a stand-up comedian in the movie – as he is in the real world – Kumail deals with life through an acerbic wit that never stops giving, allowing jokes to flow even in a hospital ward. Along for the ride are Holly Hunter (TNT’s Saving Grace) and Ray Romano (CBS’s long-running Everybody Loves Raymond) – who has a lot of fun playing a man unable to tell a joke – as Emily’s parents, along with a deep cast of other talented supporting players that includes Anupam Kher (Silver Linings Playbook) and Zenobia Shroff (When Harry Tries to Marry), as Kumail’s own on-screen parents, and Adeel Akhtar (The Dictator) as his brother, all three extremely funny, as well. It’s a lovely affair, filled with laughter and tears, and a beautiful paean to the relationship at its center.
Nanjiani is certainly not the first writer to mine his/her own ethnic background for rich material that may be unfamiliar to those from outside that particular ethnicity. Indeed, one could call this film “My Big Fat Almost Pakistani Wedding” (my apologies to Nia Vardalos) given the way so much of the humor comes from Nanjiani’s and Gordon’s loving tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the on-screen relatives. What makes the film truly work, that kind of comedy aside, however, is that all characters in this story are fully three-dimensional, be they on the immigrant or long-time resident side. People grow and change in unexpected ways, and just when you think you know what kind of movie you’re watching (romantic comedy? tragic love story? Pakistani-American Seinfeld?), it switches gears, always keeping you guessing. That fact – that unpredictability! – is so deeply refreshing that The Big Sick deserves to conquer the box office this summer, just to prove that truly original movies have an audience. Be a member of that audience, please, and go watch it as soon as you can.
[Adapted and expanded from a capsule review I wrote for my post-SXSW coverage for this site.]