This review of The Big Sick was originally published on January 21st, 2017 as part of The Verge’s Sundance Film Festival coverage. The film hits theaters this weekend and we’re still just as smitten with the movie, a high-water mark for the romantic comedy genre and an welcome respite from the season’s blockbusters.
Kumail Nanjiani is arguably best known for his role as Dinesh Chugtai on HBO’s Silicon Valley, but I suspect regular readers of The Verge — folks fascinated with technology and the culture that unspools around it — probably know his work on Adventure Time, Bob’s Burgers, The X-Files, and The Indoor Kids. That last one isn’t a movie or television show, but a (now defunct) podcast Nanjiani hosted with his wife, the writer and producer Emily Gordon.
The Big Sick is the pair's first foray into co-writing a screenplay, and in an unintentional way, a prequel to their podcast. It’s a romantic comedy about how Nanjiani and Gordon met, started dating, and overcame a life threatening illness. Ya know, the usual rom-com stuff.
(Full disclosure: Years ago, my wife worked with Nanjiani and The Big Sick director Michael Showalter on the Comedy Central show Michael and Michael Have Issues.)
Sundance Film Festival 2017
What’s the genre?
What’s it about?
For people who became familiar with the life story of Nanjiani and Gordon through their podcast, this will sound familiar. Kumail, played by himself, is an aspiring stand-up comedian, polishing a set in a Chicago nightclub. Emily, played by Zoe Kazan, is a grad school student who attends one of his shows. They hook up, hang out, date — and split. Nanjiani's fear of disownment from his traditional Pakistani family is an insurmountable roadblock.
Then, without warning, Emily becomes ill from a mysterious infection, and is put into a medically induced coma that affords the doctors time to search for a cause and a cure.
Okay, what’s it really about?
Parents. There’s a beautiful, somewhat traditional love story tucked into The Big Sick, but it’s bookended by a warm, but frank confrontation with how we seek the love and approval of our parents and our in-laws.
Nanjiani’s performance effortlessly carries the film’s staggering emotional weight. The character is a struggling comic on the cusp of breaking out, an immigrant questioning the faith and customs of family, a romantic torn between his expectations and his heart, and one half of the film’s two love stories.
Yes, two. We first watch Kumail and Emily in an extended meet cute, but once the young woman enters the coma, we get a second and different sort of love story between Kumail and Emily’s parents, the calls-‘em-like-she-sees-‘em Beth and the anxious Terry. Played with folksiness by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, the doting parents are lived-in, where they easily could have become cloying. And so, The Big Sick presents a story that I believe plays out often in the real world, but rarely in art: a potential spouse discovers a deeper and richer affection for their partner by getting to know the people that raised her. Beth, Terry, and their marriage are imperfect, but the two care deeply about their daughter. Watching Kumail gradually spot that tenderness and ultimately share it is beautiful.
But is it any good?
Absolutely. Nanjiani and Gordon have discussed romantic comedies on their podcast and elsewhere, and their expertise shows in the ways they improve upon the genre. I mentioned Emily’s mother already, but I also should highlight the other women in the film, who are afforded time and dialogue to express their own personalities and wants. I’m talking about Emily, but also the many Pakistani women that Kumail’s parents hope he will accept for an arranged marriage. The film takes a late, brief, and unexpected detour to give one of these women a chance to share her side and her exhaustion with the process.
And when Kumail relies on the male niceties and eccentricities of rom-coms, women shut him down as his intellectual and comic equal — if not superior. On their second date, Kumail performs his ritual of showing his new girlfriend a classic horror B-movie, and Emily sarcastically quips how she loves when new boyfriends judge her taste.
What should it be rated?
Update: We were right. The MPAA gave the film an R-rating for “language including some sexual references.”
The film doesn’t have an official rating, but I’d say it should be PG-13, because an R rating will prevent teenagers from seeing a genuine and complex depiction of love. Of course it will be rated R because the word “fuck” is said more than once.
How can I actually watch it?
Update: The film opens in theaters in limited release on June 23rd and wide release on July 14th.
The film doesn’t have a release date, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this gets held for Oscar season. It’s not traditional Awards fare, but both Hunter and Romano give performances good enough to warrant supporting actor and actress buzz. I expect whoever acquires the film this week will offer a nice paycheck, and maybe some marketing promises to get the film in front a big audience — one it deserves.