With a screenplay written by, and based on the real life experiences of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick, is a heartfelt romantic comedy that does its best to tell both sides of a relationship, (despite its female lead being in a coma for half the film). This is only the third film directed by Michael Showalter, including The Baxter, and last year’s Hello, My Name is Doris, and it may be his best yet.
Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, with Zoe Kazan as his then girlfriend, (now wife), Emily Gordon. Their relationship begins after Zoe watches Kumail (an Uber driver by day), performing stand up comedy. He tries some of his tried and true pick up lines on her, and after hooking up for one night, they continue to date despite both being hesitant. Emily is currently working on her Master’s degree in Social Work and Kumail knows that his traditional Muslim family from Pakistan will not approve of a white girlfriend.
While we watch the relationship between Kumail and Emily blossom, we also bear witness to Kumail’s relationship with his family. Having regular dinners with his parents, brother and sister-in-law, Kumail’s mother is portrayed a bit stereotypically as the meddlesome mom, hoping to set her son up with a nice Muslim girl, and convince him to give up comedy and become a lawyer. A revolving door of potential mates just happens to “stop by” while they are having family dinner, each one attempting to make a connection with Kumail. Each time, he deposits their headshots into a cigar box in his bedroom. Kumail keeps this from Emily even as their relationship grows more serious. Emily’s parents eventually plan to visit, and want to meet her new boyfriend. This leads to an argument when Emily ultimately finds the cigar box, bringing the issue of their own future to a head and Emily leaves, ending their relationship.
The film then takes a major turn when Kumail days later receives a phone call from one of Emily’s friends. She is at the hospital and needs someone to check on her. A scared, pissed off Emily, is unhappy to see Kumail there. She looks terrible and her condition is worsening. With moments to spare, Emily’s doctor tells Kumail he needs “her husband’s” permission to put Emily into a medically induced coma while they treat her body for infection.
It’s during this second act that we meet Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry, played excellently by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Holly Hunter’s Beth is a force to be reckoned with; she wants nothing to do with Kumail who recently broke her daughter’s heart. This is probably one of my favorite performances by Ray Romano. He plays Terry as both a fumbling teacher – grappling with his daughter’s condition, constantly taking detailed notes – and a downtrodden husband, deferring to Beth on all major decisions. Eventually, Terry extends an olive branch, inviting Kumail to join them for lunch at the hospital cafeteria. Our first exchange between them is awkward but hilarious; we watch as Terry, attempting to make conversation, asks Kumail about September 11th. Kumail doesn’t miss a beat quipping, “We lost 19 of our best men that day,” before awkwardly apologizing and stating what a horrible tragedy September 11th was. These first few interactions between girlfriend’s parents and uncomfortable boyfriend definitely ring true, even without Emily being in a coma.
Her parents need a distraction that night, so Terry invites himself to watch Kumail do a stand up performance. Beth begrudgingly tags along, but once a racist heckler from the audience starts yelling, “go back to ISIS” she does a 180: becoming a protective mama bear, unafraid to take on the white frat boy. They go toe to toe until Beth is kicked out of the club while Terry does his best to reign in his anger.
This incident changes the dynamic between Kumail and Emily’s parents. They go back to Emily’s apartment where they now drink, “stress eat,” and listen to Terry tell jokes that Beth describes are as funny as, “a fart at a funeral.” Kumail is accepted, maybe more so by Emily’s parents, than by his own.
I think one of things I really appreciate in the film is that it humanizes Emily’s parents, fleshing them out as full characters besides being parents. We see them bombarded with medical jargon from a parade of doctors working on their daughter’s condition to no avail. We watch a frantic Beth looking up the ratings of their hospital while she Googles the potential side effects of her daughter’s infection and treatment. But the parents also argue and struggle with their own relationship while faced with the stress of their daughter’s condition. They each have their own flaws and wisdom to bestow upon Kumail while he waits anxiously for Emily to wake up.
My major criticism of The Big Sick is that we do not see the same amount of time and depth of characters devoted to Kumail’s own parents. We come understand Beth and Terry’s relationship as Kumail begins to comprehend his own feelings for Emily. We observe Kumail break down on stage as he learns she may not recover. And while this speech gets filmed and posted to the Internet as a major fail by the stand up community, it’s the honesty and raw emotion of Kumail’s words that help him earn Emily back later on.
The third act of the film is a major wake up call for Kumail as Emily finally wakes up, and it comes back to Emily V. Gordon giving her side of the story. Because while Kumail spent eight intense days with Emily’s parents figuring out his true feelings regarding Emily, (and commitment in general), she was in a coma. Emily wakes up like it was yesterday; full of the anger she felt when Kumail was hiding their relationship from his family, and acting like an ass. She explains this to Kumail and it takes him (and the audience) a minute to realize that she is right. So Kumail is faced with the daunting task, (and the opportunity) to make himself better on his own. He makes a last ditch attempt at winning Emily back when Beth invites him to a “welcome home” party held in her honor. He even takes Emily’s pre-coma suggestion of putting more of himself and his family into his one-man show. But when she finally comes to see him, he has already made the decision to move with two of his friends to New York to pursue a career in comedy.
I was happy to see Kumail leave for New York. Even with a slightly estranged relationship with his parents, they still urge him to text them when he arrives, there even though his mother is not speaking to him. And while Kumail doesn’t win Emily back initially, we see the hope of a future when she shows up again in the audience at one of his New York stand up performances. As the credits roll, we see photos of the real life Emily and Kumail, getting married. We have our happy ending without a big budget romance. While I wish we had a chance to get to know more about Kumail’s family, or some of the many prospective Pakistani women, we did get a chance to know Kumail and see him develop. The film is ultimately his journey and we’re just along for the Uber.
Besides watching movies, Diana likes the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. IG: @dldimuro