Photo: Associated Press
There’s something to be said for staying perfectly still and saying nothing, and allowing the other person to discover his or her true feelings. In essence, that’s what happens in “The Big Sick,” a romantic comedy about a relationship that finally goes into overdrive when one of the lovers falls into a coma.
Written by Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, the movie is pretty much their real-life story, and the fact that it’s based on truth probably accounts for much of what’s original and unexpected about it. No one here has a fancy job, and everyone dresses like a slob. The settings are tiny apartments, with roommates right outside the bedroom door, and a dive comedy club where Kumail (Nanjiani) works as a regular. Later, when Emily gets suddenly and alarmingly ill, a lot of time is spent in the hospital.
Of course, knowing that Kumail and Emily are married gives away two plot points: (1) Emily doesn’t die; and (2) The lovers end up together. But it’s a romantic comedy, so you’d know that anyway. The key thing is that “The Big Sick,” with ease and seeming effortlessness, makes us care a lot of about these people, together and separately. And their journey is odd enough to be interesting.
Kumail meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) in the comedy club. She’s in the audience and whoops it up during one of his jokes, which leads to a conversation at the bar and then to sex just a few hours later. Afterward, since they really don’t know each other, they try to be cool and tell each other how much they’re not really interested in a relationship. And from there they start spending several days a week with each other.
Soon, they’re close enough that she tells her parents all about him, but he says nothing about her to his parents, because they’re religious Muslims from Pakistan. His parents assume that they will arrange Kumail’s marriage for him. To that end, they keep inviting single Muslim women to drop by the house every time Kumail comes for a visit. For the audience, this becomes a source for more than humor: It’s a window into a culture.
There’s one scene in “The Big Sick,” and only one, that rings entirely false: Emily realizes that Kumail, because of his family background, will never marry her, and he agrees. He lets her walk out of his life. But nothing in the movie leads us to believe that Kumail’s ties to his family are quite that strong. In fact, as it turns out, Nanjiani says this is the film’s only major plot turn that’s entirely fictional. In real life, Kumail and Emily did not break up before Emily’s sickness.
Still, though the breakup scene may be awkward and hard to believe, that one little plot turn serves up the rest of the movie. Kumail not only has to worry that Emily is sick, but also that he got her sick. He ends up spending time with her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), who fly in to be at her bedside, but because of the breakup, there’s tension in the air.
Hunter and Romano couldn’t be better. They enter the film not as caricatures or even characters but as complete people, carrying the backstory of a 30-year marriage with them. They’re both up to the demands of comedy, but it’s Romano’s dramatic ability that comes as a surprise. He lets us feel the weight of having a daughter hovering between life and death. The veneer is dignified, but the inner life is panicked.
Nanjiani is engaging throughout, though the scenes of his standup routine are a little confusing. He’s not funny, not even slightly. Is he supposed to be? That’s not clear. As for Kazan, she spends most of the movie unconscious, but she makes a strong impression in her awake incarnation. To be specific, the audience is already in love with her long before Kumail gets there.
The Big Sick
Comedy-Drama. Starring Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan. Directed by Michael Showalter. (R. 119 minutes.)