Kumail (Nanjiani, Silicon Valley) is a Chicago-based stand-up comedian whose routine impresses Emily (Kazan) to such an extent she’s willing to go back on her no-dating rule. They click over the next few weeks but when she finds pictures of Pakistani women Kumail’s traditional parents hope he’ll marry they fight and break up. Then Emily falls sick with a mysterious infection and is put in an induced coma. He contacts her parents – Hunter and Romano – who know all about the relationship and aren’t too keen on the man who broke their daughter’s heart hanging around the hospital…
The Big Sick will surprise. A clever bait-and-switch, it suckers you in thinking it’s one movie before turning it all on its head. This character-driven comedy initially is all about the cute but realistic moments of a burgeoning relationship: the circling of each other, the friendly jibing, the silly compatibly tests (Nanjiani forces Emily to watch movies he loves), the awkwardness of having the first poo in your new partner’s apartment. There’s a mumblecore vibe to it, a downplaying of its big moments. All this is good but it’s not great. The great is on its way.
As Emily’s mysterious condition worsens, and the fragility of Hunter and Romano’s marriage is allowed to be explored, The Big Sick is suddenly given an unexpected gravitas. And it’s no Love And Other Drugs where there is a massive tonal shift, as director Michael Showalter, working from Nanjiani and Nanjiani’s wife Emily V. Gordon’s script (apparently the story is semi-autobiographical), is able to deftly balance the two: the funny remains funny, the serious is touching, and neither one dilutes the other. And it manages to squeeze in a pointed political message on islamophobia while it’s at it. It’s able to have its cake and eat it.
The indie bagginess of it all is endearing and it’s only when it goes looking for jokes – Kumail’s one-man show on the history of Pakistan is totally out of character; his quirky family who invite him to dinner only to ‘surprise’ him with a date who has just ‘dropped by’ is pure sitcom; the comedian buddies are too cruel to be funny – that they feel shoehorned in to appease a mainstream audience. And it misses the wonderful and underrated Kazan, who is unconscious for the most part.