Quite honestly, “The Big Sick” should not work nearly as well as it does. Mixing comedy and a potentially terminal illness is a tricky tightrope to walk. “50/50” was able to do it tremendously well. Judd Apatow divided audiences and critics when he tried it with “Funny People.” Now as just a producer, Apatow has found perhaps the best example yet of how to do it right. “The Big Sick” is emotional, for sure, but it’s also hilarious. In taking their life story and putting it on screen, writers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani have put forward something wonderful. In a very real sense, you’ll laugh and you’ll cry in equal measure.
“The Big Sick” manages to feel both deeply cinematic and also deeply real, a credit to Gordon and Nanjiani. They hit on something that you rarely see in romantic comedies. If you’re serious about someone, be it dating or marriage, you’re also getting their families as part of the package. In showcasing that as much as the central relationship, they’ve hit on something profound. For a movie with its share of raunchy jokes, there’s a heart on display. That truly sets it apart and makes it one of 2017’s best yet.
At the start, this seems like a cute little Apatow-style rom com. We have an aspiring comedian in Kumail (Nanjiani), clearly in need of growing up. He wants to make a career in stand up work, but at the moment he’s also driving for Uber. When he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) at a show, there’s an immediate spark. They sleep together, but intend for it to be a one-time thing. Yet, they keep meeting up, repeatedly saying they don’t want to date. Inevitably, they do, though it quickly creates conflict with Kumail’s parents, Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff). His mother, especially, wants him to marry a nice Pakistani girl, arranging for one to always be around the house whenever he’s there. This puts a strain on Kumail and is a secret he must keep from Emily, one that eventually blows up in his face. Emily is gone, with Kumail left to wonder if he made a mistake. Then, one night, the phone rings.
It turns out that Emily’s periodic sickness is the sign of a serious disease. She is placed into a medically induced coma, and Kumail happens to be the person contacted, despite being an ex. Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), soon arrive and are ready to take over. Faced with Emily’s illness and the chance to walk away, Kumail opts to stick around. Beth knows what happened between them and initially wants nothing to do with Kumail, but Terry takes a shine to him, awkwardly trying to bond with his daughter’s former boyfriend. As Emily struggles to come out of the coma, Kumail learns a lot about her parents, leading him to rethink quite a lot. The film more or less ends up where you expect it to, but the road it takes to get there is one you might not anticipate.
There’s no shortage of performances to rave about in “The Big Sick.” Nanjiani shows newfound range and displays the ability to be an effective leading man. Kazan aces a complex role that’s lighter on screen time but holds the key to the success of the entire film. She’s been a romantic lead before in things like “Ruby Sparks” and “What If,” but she shows a whole new angle here. Hunter is her reliably strong self, showcasing an ability to generate laughter that’s delightful to find. Then, there’s Romano, who is perhaps best in show. Initially seeming like a simple schlub, he lets you in on the dramatic depths within his character. If you cry during the movie, it might be due to Romano.
There’s also some very nice supporting work here too. The aforementioned Kher and Shroff subvert the expectations of immigrant parents on film, while Adeel Akhtar is solid as Kumail’s more traditional brother. In addition, Kurt Braunohler, Aidy Bryant, and Bo Burnham provide comic relief as stand up friends of Kumail, while the rest of the cast includes David Alan Grier, among others.
Director Michael Showalter has made a nice little career handling gentle character studies. With “The Big Sick,” he jumps to a whole new level, suggesting he has as much in common with James L. Brooks as other comedians turned filmmakers. He handles the tone brilliantly, never going too far in one direction. Paired with Apatow as his producer, he mixes comedy and drama perfectly. If there’s a slight flaw, it’s that the flick could have been a few minutes shorter. However, there’s no clear place to cut anything. The comedy aspects are just right. The drama ones are too, whether in the hospital or seated across from a set of parents. It’s all just so well done.
It would have been easy for Gordon and Nanjiani to shy away from some of the more complex aspects of their lives, but the brave decision not to elevates the film. In telling the story of various battles being fought, be it medical or emotional, they never lose sight of the comedy. Every emotion is earned, whether laughter or tears. Frankly, this is perhaps the most effective screenplay of the year so far. In a perfect world, it will be remembered at the end of the year and contend for a Best Original Screenplay nomination.
By focusing on cultural differences, relationship issues, and familial tensions in equal measure, “The Big Sick” manages to be a cut above. There’s essentially nothing not to like about this dramedy. Apatow saw something in Gordon and Nanjiani’s story, as did Amazon when they bought it for a ton of money at the Sundance Film Festival. Now, you can see why. Don’t miss this film, as it could end up being the small scale early year release from Sundance that gets remembered come Oscar time. Yes, it’s that good. Don’t miss it!
“The Big Sick” is distributed by Amazon Studios and opens in theaters on June 23.