Everyone thinks that their unimportant relationship/break-up is important enough to become a movie. I’ll admit, I have too. And while most of them aren’t, The Big Sick is the exception to that rule. You should see it as soon as possible.
Real-life Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani met in Chicago a decade ago. There are no alternative character names because there is no pretense that the story, written by Gordon and Nanjiani, is anything but true. In the movie, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks, What If) plays Emily and Kumail plays himself. Together, their chemistry is infectious, and the story plays out as an engaging, voyeuristic journey that I didn’t want to end, even though the movie might be ten minutes too long.
After a period of casual dating, Kumail and Emily’s relationship gets somewhat serious, but comes to a crashing halt when Emily finds out Kumail hasn’t told his parents about her. Kumail is afraid that his traditionalist Pakistani-immigrant parents will kick him out of the family, and Emily sees this as a lack of commitment. They break up, and then Emily falls into a coma. It’s a “good” type of coma, the movie explains, “like a good carb”, but a coma nonetheless.
This is a true story, and the fact that Emily and Kumail are around to tell it is a spoiler in itself. However, the journey is so much fun that it doesn’t matter if the ending is obvious. An obvious ending is true of almost all romantic comedies anyway. And while The Big Sick falls into some clichéd trappings of the genre, there are also a few subversions that throw you for a loop and keep you invested.
The Big Sick is directed by Michael Showalter, but most of the auteur-y praise falls on Judd Apatow, who produced and essentially greenlit the film. It has all the Apatow trademarks. The comedy is entirely dialogue-based, creating an exceedingly pleasant tone. The run-time is a bit excessive. And the main character goes on a transformative emotional voyage while the love interest just kind of exists. (In this case, Emily is literally in a coma.)
However, despite this massive red flag (strangely reminiscent of Passengers, my least favorite movie of last year), Emily always feels present in the story. Kumail is awkwardly waiting in the hospital for his comatose ex-girlfriend when he is introduced to Emily’s parents, played exquisitely by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. They know about the break-up, and despise Kumail for it, but end up spending a lot of time with him because he keeps waiting in the hospital for Emily. This new relationship not only creates an opportunity for Kumail to learn and externalize his thoughts, but allows the audience to learn more about Emily, keeping her from feeling like a stock photo. And when Emily does wake up (again, an obvious spoiler), her character is not manipulated or villainized. The intense screenplay collaboration between real-life Kumail and Emily, as well as the fact that this is a true story, keeps the film from feeling gross and one-sided.
On first watch, The Big Sick is designed for a theatre experience. There are some gut-busting gags and heartbreaking moments that thrive with a communal experience. Among other spectacularly funny moments, the 9/11 joke in the trailer is somehow even funnier with a huge group of people laughing with you. However, there are also some smaller, detail-oriented gags that will make the intimate VOD viewing fulfilling as well. Examples include Northwestern University being the indirect bad guys (true, tbh) and Ray Romano reading a copy of “Why Geography Matters More Than Ever”.
The Big Sick is neither genre-defying nor groundbreaking like some audiences will wish it to be, but it does its job really, really well. And that’s overcoming a couple studio no-gos. Despite four seasons of loveless nerdiness on HBO’s Silicon Valley, Kumail isn’t just a sidekick, he’s the romantic lead. And not only is his performance great: he is downright sexy. There is also a casual and empathetic rendering of both Muslim and atheist beliefs on screen, and an authentic, cross-generational relationship between immigrant parent and child. Take that, Master of None.
Premiering at Sundance, The Big Sick quickly became the subject of a $12 million bidding war. In its initial limited five-theatre release, it grossed an 87k per theatre average. (That’s really good—the best of 2017 thus far.) The (initial) success of The Big Sick is both surprising and unsurprising. On one hand, there is no overtly stylized aesthetic quality. It’s just a rom-com, albeit exploring a slightly unconventional route. On the other hand, it is one of the most charming, well-executed and charismatic romantic comedies to be released in recent memory. It is almost too charming, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that nearly all audiences will enjoy. It’s niche enough to be unique, but generic enough to be universal. In essence, The Big Sick is imperfectly perfect.