Rom-com The Big Sick is actually a pick-me-up for the spirit

By Karen Gordon

I love romantic comedies. The good ones – like The Big Sick - are like vitamins for the spirit on a rainy day. 

In spite of the fact that all rom-coms take the same trajectory (they meet, fall in love, fall apart and come together again, hurray!), it’s a notoriously tricky genre to get right: Unlikeable characters, unbelievable circumstances, too little connection, too saccharine, not enough heart etc. etc., can tank a film really fast. 

So, wonderfully, into this season dominated by franchise after franchise of heavily CGI action films, comes a real charmer by a couple of first time screenwriters. 

Kumail Nanjiani

Kumail Nanjiani

The Big Sick is co-written by comedian/actor Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, under the skilled guidance of co-executive producer, and master of the modern rom-com Judd Apatow.  

Kumail is living in Chicago, driving an Uber to make ends meet, and gigging in the local comedy club, working on his act, aiming for his big break. Producers for the Montreal Comedy Festival are coming to the club, looking for new talent for the prestigious festival. 

One night he’s heckled by a pretty blonde in the crowd. At the end of his set he heads straight for her and meets Emily, played by Zoe Kazan. The attraction is mutual, and before the night is over, they’ve fallen into bed together. It’s no biggie.  Neither wants to get serious. She’s focused on building her career as a therapist. He’s all about his comedy career. 

But establishing a meaningful distance proves difficult. When it comes to Emily, Kumail is having trouble living up to the set of rules that he’s specifically designed to keep his girlfriends at a distance.  

And that’s not just about career. Kumail is kind of living a double life.

Kazan and Nanjiani. Just when the relationship gets comfortable...

Kazan and Nanjiani. Just when the relationship gets comfortable...

On the weekends, he heads home to the suburbs and his conservative Pakistani-Muslim parents for a family dinner that is served with a side of cultural expectations. At some point in the dinner, they have arranged for a suitable Pakistani-Muslim woman to “drop in." It’s a bit of the old country, a form of traditional arranged marriage. They’re assuming Kumail will drop his silly ideas of being a comedian, and instead, like his older brother, choose to marry one of these young women, and then go on to an acceptable professional career like doctor or a lawyer. Kumail uses humour to deflect, but it wears thin.

The distance between the suburbs where his parents live, and his place downtown enables him to keep his two worlds separate - until one day Emily makes a discovery that breaks her heart.

Now, this would be enough drama for one movie to resolve and would probably make a satisfying rom-com, but there’s more.
A short while later, Emily gets gravely ill and is put into a medical coma while doctors try to figure out what’s wrong with her. Kumail is called to the hospital to wait with her until her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) arrive from out of town. When they get there, the’re not happy to meet the dude who has been lying to their daughter, and try to dismiss him. But by then he’s in for the long haul. 

There are a lot of moving parts to The Big Sick,  which accounts for its two-hour running time, epic for a rom-com. But in spite of that, and in spite the fact that we know how it works out in real life (she recovered, they’re happily married), The Big Sick is engaging and really sweet.

Nanjiani and Gordon have written a script about themselves without ego, or without drowning the piece in sentimentality. And Nanjiani, with the odd assignment of playing his younger self, is the center of the film, and yet plays it low-key, giving the other actors space to play off of him. Kazan plays Emily as a smart and aware woman. Their relationship doesn’t seem to be built on sexual attraction or neediness.  You get the sense that these two really like each other and would have been friends if they had met in other circumstances.

Director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris) keeps the tone light and doesn’t milk obvious cliches, like the culture clashes, for cheap laughs. Kumail’s parents, played by Zenobia Shroff and the Indian acting legend Anupam Kher, are not cliches, or cariacatures, nor are the Pakistani women who come to meet him. They’re all lovely and accomplished and genuinely frustrated by his ambivalence.

It’s true that Kumail is pretty much lying to everyone close to him, but it’s not a character flaw. He’s walking a line familiar to most children of immigrant parents who have moved their family to a country that provides freedom and better opportunities, but still want their kids to follow traditional customs.

Kumail is stuck. To walk away from his family would inflict pain on them and lead to an estrangement that he can’t bear. But it’s trapped him in a kind of permanent adolescence. The dilemma is handled with a light hand, but is as central to the story as the herky-jerky nature of his romance with Emily. 

That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have its flaws. Nanjiani and Gordon say the biggest departure from the true story is the re-imagining of her parents, who are too relaxed in real life to make good drama. Hunter as mom is a firebrand and a hot-head. Her husband, as played by Romano, barely has enough personality to carry him along. He fumbles around trying to work out or express what he’s feeling. It makes for some of the least believable scenes in the film.

And since Emily is in a coma, for a chunk of the final half of the film, their storyline - their relationship with Kumail - takes center stage, which slows the final bits of the movie down somewhat. But it’s a minor complaint.

The Big Sick has a true and beating heart, and it adds up to a sweet and wonderful romance

The Big Sick. Directed by Michael Showalter and starring Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan. Opens Friday June 30 at Cineplex Odeon Varsity and VIP Cinemas and other selected theatres..

Karen Gordon

Karen Gordon is a freelance writer/broadcaster who's heard Fridays reviewing movies on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. She’s covered movies, music and popular culture for 20 years in radio, TV and print. She's also a creative producer, series story editor and writer for documentary and lifestyle TV and is the co-writer of two award-winning cookbooks, David Rocco’s Dolce Vita and Made in Italy. Karen still gets a thrill when the lights go down and the movie begins.