Writing about The Big Sick seems problematic for me. On one hand it is a rather formulaic rom-com, while on the other hand it is an earnest drama about two lovers and an extreme event that turns their lives upside down. I had avoided much of the film’s publicity and was underwhelmed by the blips that had crossed my radar. The poster-art is fairly undesirable and Judd Apatow’s name as a producer evokes a level of expectation. To say that the film blindsided me is an understatement; what I walked away from is possibly my favourite film of the year so far (that’s not to say “the best”… best and favourite are two different things).
The problematic aspect to this review is that a plot description is inevitable, and so for those choosing to go in blind – this is where I leave you. Of course, nothing I write will ruin the film, but its impact is all the more powerful with little knowledge of the story.
As the title suggests (not for dunces like me who’ve been calling it The Big Stick), the film details an illness. In fact, it’s a life-threatening illness that strikes two interracial lovers at a moment when their cultural differences have ruined their relationship. Kumail Nanjiani stars as himself and, basing it on their real experience, co-wrote the film with his wife Emily V. Gordon, played by Zoe Kazan in the film.
Kumail is a Pakistani stand-up comedian whose life course is set in stone by his family’s strong Islamic faith, and when he falls in love with a young white American girl, Emily (Kazan), he finds himself caught in a quandary. To follow his heart would mean being expelled from his family, and to give up Emily would lead to a life of misery. Not long after discovering that Kumail has been covering up their relationship, Emily suddenly collapses and is put into a medically induced coma. Her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) arrive and the film takes a turn: the charming romantic-comedy twists into an emotionally charged drama, exploring themes of faith, immigration, infidelity and prejudice.
Kumail’s face will be familiar to most people due to his part in the television series Silicon Valley – as well as other films like Fist Fight, Sex Tape and The Five-Year Engagement – but none of those performances compare to the personal and unfeigned turn that he delivers in The Big Sick. He wears his heart on his sleeve as he takes us behind the scenes of his struggling stand-up comedy days and into the home of his strict and religiously stringent family, and the result is all-consuming.
As his on-and-off lover whose own identity is threatened by Nanjiani’s cultural ties, Kazan gives a wonderfully sweet performance that is mostly restricted to the film’s bookending acts. Despite not sharing as much screen time as her co-stars, she puts her stamp on the screen and plays an integral part of the film’s discerning charm. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are also excellent. Romano’s performance as the fearful father and guilt-ridden husband would be a revelation had Romano not already proven his dramatic capacity in strong turns in Eulogy and Vinyl. He’s so good that Hunter, also in solid form, has to jog just to keep up with him.
The Big Sick was directed by Michael Showalter (Coop from Wet Hot American Summer), whose previous direction gave us the Sally Field-starring Hello, My Name is Doris and The Baxter. His competence in balancing comedy with drama is seamless and his style refuses to let the film be pegged in with similarly themed films. My mind went to comparable movies and struggled to think of any quite as candid and heartfelt. Nanjiani’s script takes cues from My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Mike Birbiglia’s autobiographical film Sleepwalk with Me and weaves those influences into his own personal odyssey. At times gut-bustingly hilarious and at times gut-wrenchingly potent; make sure you prepare your gut.
The year isn’t over and there are plenty more films ahead, but as it stands, The Big Sick might just be my personal favourite so far. Small, modest and well balanced… it edges towards a perfect score.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★ ★ ★★☆