‘The Big Sick’ is best comedy of 2017 so far, and so much more

Comedian Kumail Nanjiani mines his own life for this story of a relationship, which co-stars Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, and Ray Romano.

Nicole Rivelli/Lionsgate
From left, Holly Hunter as 'Beth,' Ray Romano as 'Terry' and Kumail Nanjiani as 'Kumail' in 'The Big Sick.'

To call “The Big Sick” the best comedy so far this year is to skimp its appeal. It’s a very funny movie with a surprising amount of depth, and somehow the jokes and the seriousness heighten each other.

The film, directed by Michael Showalter and produced by Judd Apatow, is based on the life of Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani immigrant and comic (he plays a computer coder on “Silicon Valley”), and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, a television comedy writer. To compound the project’s personalization, the couple co-wrote the screenplay and Nanjiani plays himself in the film. Emily is played, marvelously, by Zoe Kazan.

Kumail is introduced to us doing stand-up at a Chicago comedy club. Emily, whom he has never met, gently heckles him, breaking his stride. This meet-cute moment leads to a one-night stand that, despite their protestations, inevitably leads to a serious relationship. But there’s a problem: Kumail’s parents (wonderfully played by Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher) are strict Muslims who would never sanction his involvement with a white American girl. So he doesn’t tell them about Emily, and when she discovers his subterfuge, she’s devastated. 

Even before Emily makes her appearance, Kumail was already the outlier of the family. Instead of going to law school and settling for one of the many eligible Muslim women his mother is constantly trying to fix him up with, he is instead a struggling stand-up comic. (In his act, he has to counteract his foreignness by saying lines like “We hate terrorists – it’s OK.”) The filmmakers don’t belittle Kumail’s dilemma. It’s clear to him that were he to marry Emily, he would lose his family. Emily is right to rail against Kumail’s secrecy, but she may not comprehend the gravity of what is at stake for him. He does, and it tears him apart. 

About a half-hour into the movie, several weeks after Kumail and Emily have split up, she is suddenly diagnosed with a mysterious infection that requires her to be put into a medically induced coma. This brings out the valorousness in Kumail, who becomes so steadfast in his vigilance that even Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who have flown in from North Carolina, gradually warm up to him. Unlike Kumail, who told his parents nothing about Emily, she has told her parents everything about Kumail and his deception. One of the most graceful and moving aspects of “The Big Sick” is the way in which Terry, Beth, and Kumail transform their antagonism into a fierce mutual advocacy for Emily and for each other. Terry uses humor as a way to camouflage his grief, while Emily is just the opposite: Her pain and rage are bristlingly on the surface. As a man flummoxed by circumstance and the rifts in his own marriage, Romano is deeply touching in the role. As for Hunter, this is her best work since “Broadcast News.” 

One of the things that lifts “The Big Sick” out of the rom-com/disease-of-the-week TV movie ghetto is that, in a wider sense, it is also a movie about immigration and assimilation. The contrast between Kumail’s Pakistani upbringing and his Western aspirations is not played simply for laughs. Even when a steady stream of eligible Muslim women, invited by Kumail’s mother, just happen to “drop in” at dinnertime, there is a poignancy to the situation. To their vast credit, the filmmakers don’t unduly load the deck in Kumail’s favor: His older brother (Adeel Akhtar), for instance, is quite happy with the way his arranged marriage turned out and, in one of the film’s sharpest scenes, one of the drop-in ladies (a marvelous Vella Lovell) berates Kumail in the most heartfelt terms for his disinterest.

The film’s only real drawback is that, by necessity, Kazan is essentially absent for more than a third of it. This is not as detrimental as it would normally be in a routine rom-com, since “The Big Sick” is, in some ways, as much about the parents of Emily and Kumail as it is about themselves. But Kazan is such a wide-eyed and wily performer that we can’t help but regret her absence. Even in her scenes with Nanjiani, there is a slight loss: At times, he’s a bit inexpressive in the role. Perhaps playing himself was more intimidating than liberating. But he and Gordon had the supreme good sense to recognize that the story of Emily and Kumail is about more than the fraught courtship of two lovers. It’s about the fraught courtship of two cultures. Grade: A- (Rated R for language including some sexual references.)

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