A few years back, Kumail Nanjiani produced one of those hour-long Comedy Central specials that marks a critical upper-ladder rung on the typical comic’s hoped-for ascendency to eventually starring alongside the Rock and having their very own CBS sitcom. Its title, Beta Male, was indicative of the kind of mild and self-deprecating profile Nanjiani had been cutting ever since starting out as a standup comic in Chicago. Jokes about video games and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, cut with some wry observational humor about being a young Pakistani man in post-9/11 America: Yes. Raw confessional shockers or Belushi-esque antics: Not so much.
The same persona carries over into the character Nanjiani plays — helpfully also named Kumail — in The Big Sick. This is helpful, as a stronger persona might have damaged the movie’s already delicate balancing act. Nanjiani’s hanging-back, behind-the-beat comedy plays off the bigger moments and keeps things from tipping into mawkish hospital bedside bathos, which could all too easily have happened, what with his character’s girlfriend Emily (Zoe Kazan) falling into a coma not long after they break up.
An autobiographical story that Nanjiani wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, the movie is a sweet and occasionally tart romantic comedy that tells how they first met. But instead of following the typical meet-cute with a series of obstacles for them to slalom past before arriving at the hard-earned reconciliation, The Big Sick is almost more about what happens around the characters as the primary drama plays out.
At the story’s beginning, Kumail is a typical sort for a Judd Apatow-produced romantic comedy. A standup comic who spends most of his time in career anxiety with his comic buddies, Kumail is hoping for the big break and making ends meet as an Uber driver. This is all highly upsetting to his parents. For them, as one of Kumail’s better gags in the movie goes, the hierarchy of employment for a good Pakistani son runs in descending order: doctor, engineer, lawyer, “hundreds of jobs, ISIS”, and then comedian.
Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick (2017)
What would normally happen in this kind of Apatowian comedy is that once Kumail falls for Emily, he would do various things to screw it up, ultimately realize that he needs to put away childish things, and emerge near the end of the movie as some brand of mature adult; albeit one who still spends an inordinate amount of time watching and thinking about The X-Files.
But the reason for Kumail messing up his off-again then extremely on-again romance with the far more practical Emily isn’t that he’s just an immature screw-up. Indeed, he’s the kind of immature screw-up who hasn’t come clean to her about all the eligible young Pakistani women his parents (the sublimely funny Anupan Kher and Zenobia Shroff) have been parading before him in order to produce an arranged marriage. He also hasn’t told anybody in his very tight and very traditional family that he’s dating a white girl.
Bringing everything to a head is the phone call that Kumail gets in the middle of the night, sending him to the hospital. There, his ex-girlfriend is about to be put into a medically-induced coma so that the doctors can figure out how they can save her life. At that point, Emily’s parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, fitting in glove-like) show up to brush him aside and say they’ll take it from there.
What makes The Big Sick an unusual romantic comedy is not so much the culture-clash gags that comes from Kumail’s parents’ demands of their highly Americanized son. Rather, it’s the fact that Kumail spends much of the movie trying to win the hearts of his beloved’s parents while she breathes through a ventilator. Much of the plot does revolve around Kumail’s lightweight rebellions, but its romance derives mostly from his having to cultivate the approval of two sets of disapproving parents before he can even think about winning back Emily. That intensely old-fashioned sensibility, twinned with a more jagged modern comedic outlook (such as when Kumail uses the unconscious Emily’s finger to unlock her phone and whispers, “I’m sorry” as though he had just stolen her purse), is a large part of what works in the movie.
There are elements of The Big Sick, however, that don’t quite make the cut. Michael Showalter’s direction is perfectly suitable, but hews far too close to that flat-and-bright generic romantic comedy look. Further, unusually for an Apatow-produced movie, the backup comedian characters fall a little flat, leaving too much of the movie’s comedic burden on Romano and Nanjiani’s low-key rapport of awkwardness and the occasional Islamaphobia jab.
But arriving in a noisy and mostly lousy sequel-laden summer where even generic romantic comedies have become an endangered species, The Big Sick deserves attention just for being able to deliver laughs and the occasional tear without beating the audience over the head. Not so long ago, that was what movies did.