Going back to May (when summer movie season really begins), the comedy landscape has been bleak at the movies. We’ve been given the likes of Baywatch, Snatched, Rough Night and The House this summer, all of which were unfunny disappointments. (Looking earlier in the year, we were also subjected to stuff like CHiPs and Fist Fight.) Most of the best comedy has been seen in Marvel movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming.
But Kumail Nanjiani has come to save us. Not only does The Big Sick break 2017’s comedy drought at the movies, it’s one of the best movies of the year.
The only concern is that a thoughtful, down-to-earth romantic comedy might get lost among all the summer blockbusters. But it’s also a wonderful piece of counter-programming, offered when many are surely looking for a break from superheroes, giant robots, and car chases. Judging from the weekend box office, thirsty audiences guzzled down that water. (The Big Sick finished fifth, earning $7.5 million on nearly 1,500 fewer screens than the three of the films ahead of it.)
Based on the events of Nanjiani’s own life, The Big Sick is the semi-autobiographical story of how he met his future wife and the bizarre circumstances under which their relationship developed. Nanjiani essentially plays himself, a stand-up comedian looking for his big break in Chicago while making a living as an Uber driver. He meets Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) during one of his sets, in which she jokingly shouts out when he asks if anyone in the audience is from his native Pakistan. Kumail approaches her after the show and the two hit it off by lobbing verbal darts at one another.
What could have been a pleasant enough hook-up is extended just a bit further when Emily requests an Uber and her driver is the guy with whom she’s spent the night. Emily insists that she can’t start dating because she’s in grad school and has to focus on upcoming exams. Kumail seems to agree, though it’s pretty clear he’d like to see her again. As it turns out, however, maybe Kumail is OK with Emily letting him off the hook because relationships are a complicated situation for him.
With his family nearby, Kumail still respects the wishes of his family who believe in the Pakistani tradition of arranged marriages. Joining his family for a meal in their suburban home usually includes a visit from the latest woman that his mother (Zenobia Shroff) has arranged to come over and meet her son. All of the women are beautiful, and many are interesting and funny enough to possibly intrigue Kumail, but he’s totally opposed to the idea of arranged marriages. Unfortunately for him, he can’t bear to tell his mother that, which would break her heart and almost certainly result in him being disowned by the family.
Yet as his relationship with Emily becomes more serious, his family’s wishes are something he can only keep from her for so long. Being coy and non-committal about introducing her to his parents (or in meeting her parents) is one thing. But Kumail has been keeping a collection of all the photos and information of the Pakistani women his mother has tried to set him up with. Keeping the pictures in a cigar box on his dresser was just asking to be discovered. Though the story never addresses this — and maybe it doesn’t even apply — you almost have to wonder if Kumail wanted Emily to discover that box. As awful as the ensuing confrontation was, at least he didn’t have to awkwardly, painfully bring up this subject himself.
All of that is probably enough for a movie in itself. But what sets Nanjiani’s story apart and helps The Big Sick transcend what could have been a conventional romantic comedy about culture clashes is what the title of the film refers to. After the two break up, Emily becomes sick and requires hospitalization. As awkward as the situation is, her friends ask Kumail if he can stay at the hospital with her because they have to study for exams. (That in itself seemed like something worth questioning, but the presumption is that Emily doesn’t realize how seriously ill she is.)
Understandably, Emily isn’t exactly happy to see Kumail, still feeling the sting of having secrets kept from her. Kumail himself has tried to move on, as upset as he was about losing a woman with whom he really connected. But Kumail gets pulled in irrevocably when doctors inform him that Emily has a lung infection that requires her to be placed in a medical coma while being treated. With no one else around to give consent, Kumail is practically forced into acting as if he’s her husband to sign consent forms. From there, he calls Emily’s parents to tell them what’s happening.
It’s here where the heart of The Big Sick truly lies. Sure, the movie is ostensibly about the relationship between Kumail and Emily. But Kumail realizes how deeply he cares for Emily while she’s in a coma, while her health has put her in jeopardy. How badly he wants to stay with her is tested by his interactions with her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). Beth knows all about their break-up and is no mood for Kumail to hang around. He broke her daughter’s heart and that’s one hell of an obstacle to overcome. And what great casting. Nobody plays a ball-buster better than Holly Hunter. Imagine trying to win her over under normal circumstances. Meeting your girlfriend’s (or boyfriend’s) parents is hard enough.
Romano is also wonderful as the “good cop” in the situation, willing to give Kumail a break because he’s there and he doesn’t have to be. (As it turns out, however, Terry has other reasons for being sympathetic and wants Kumail as both a buffer and a distraction.) One parent acts like she knows exactly what needs to be done, while the other is just hoping for the best. The two of them are relatable and feel real. They’re not caricatures of parents like Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner. They’re a pair of caring parents who just want what’s best for their daughter (the scenes of them dealing with various doctors feel so frustratingly real), and while they’re at it, they reach out to the one person who sticks around during a difficult time and get to know the man their daughter fell in love with.
The realness of the characters and the situations they’re in is what makes The Big Sick so resonant. Granted, it’s an extraordinary circumstance that has brought these people together. But the storytelling and acting is never over-the-top or slapstick. It’s easy to imagine relating to these people and their circumstances on some level. Even with Kumail and Emily’s relationship, there are conversations and incidents that are unlike many seen in movies before because they seem like real life, not an idealized version of a cute relationship. Every character in the film gets consideration in the script. And most importantly, Nanjiani is not afraid to be portrayed as the bad guy when his actions turn out to hurt more people than he ever likely imagined because he was more concerned with thinking about himself.
This is the sort of movie that many filmgoers and critics say they want: a mature slice-of-life comedy that’s not afraid to get dramatic and tell a story with substance. No superheroes, no explosions, no CGI — just people. People like us who go through difficulties, both emotional and medical. We like these characters, even when they do unlikable things, because the script takes its time to help us understand them.
Since this is a story from Nanjiani’s life, maybe he doesn’t have another one in him. But I hope he does, even if he and his wife (Emily Gordon) incorporate more fictional elements. And with this and Hello, My Name is Doris, director Michael Showalter has shown a talent for making bittersweet, human comedies. Whatever these guys do next, it should be worth watching. Together, they’ve made one of the best movies of 2017.