Director: Michael Showalter
Screenplay: Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher
Runtime: 117 Minutes
The Judd Apatow staple might as well be its own brand by now; usually following the lives of successful upper-middle class individuals and family units as the handle the trials and tribulations of 21st century metropolitan and suburban lifestyles. The Big Sick is a slight deviation from these ideals in that its perspective is more unique, exploring the story of Pakistani-American stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani (played by himself) and his interracial relationship with his partner Emily (Zoe Kazan).
This is noticeably a far more personal work as penned by real-life Kumail Nanjiani and wife Emily V. Gordon, and draws a great deal from their own experiences. The culture clash lies at the heart of the drama where we see the weight of expectation and tradition of a Pakistani Muslim immigrant family trying to force Kumail into an arranged marriage that he wants no part of, with his loyalty to his family tearing him away from being with the one woman he really wants to be with.
This is by far The Big Sick's most interesting strength, as it is about how we define ourselves more than how our cultural backgrounds and identities define us. There’s an interesting moment following a tepid stage routine in which Kumail discusses his Pakistani heritage where Emily asks why the show wasn’t more about him, and the film is with her in terms of wanting to see him place himself first ahead of the idea of what he should represent.
It continues into the story as Emily succumbs to an infection and has to be placed in a medically induced coma, and Kumail is placed into a situation where he cannot avoid her parents who are already aware that they left things on poor terms before she fell ill. The way in which her parents – both played beautifully by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano – cannot seem at first to avoid the conversation surrounding his race is played to playfully comic effect but addresses the issue head-on as they grow more comfortable with each other.
The emotional baggage of an otherwise melancholic premise is felt at moments but hones in on the confused nervousness of the situation, with sadness manifesting as anger that becomes properly touching at points especially in the final movement.
The cast is overall decent with Hunter and Romano stealing most of the show, but the Nanjiani family have their own quirks and moments to shine around a number of awkward dinner table scenes. Kumail Nanjiani is a genuinely likable presence, and Kazan just about manages to avoid becoming a walking plot device that facilitates change in others with her carefree charisma. The side characters are a mixed bag, specifically the insufferable stand-up comedians who invade the film at times to pile on extraneous jokes.
The film falls slightly flat in its direction from Michael Showalter, with a functional but ordinary point-and-shoot approach that relies too much on the Apatow School of improvisation at times. Much like Funny People, it focuses more on a serious drama surrounded by stand-up routines that can be genuinely funny, but at over two hours it feels a little baggy even in some of its better moments.
The Big Sick works largely because its heart is in the right place. It feels individual in the scope of most mainstream comedies and its success rides on the chemistry of its main cast and a terrific stab at cultural commentary that leaves something to chew on while the comedy gently works its way into the film’s happy-go-lucky atmosphere.