There are few things as tried and true in this world than the pure joy of a well-made romantic comedy. We really haven’t seen a truly great one in recent years, outside of the more dramatic Silver Linings Playbook and Her. In fact, the last decade has made the genre synonymous with Matthew McConaughey, Katherine Heigl, and Patrick Dempsey, for better or worse. It’s been eons since Richard Curtis and Hugh Grant charmed us with witty dialogue and heartfelt stories of love. Thankfully, writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon have done us the great pleasure of creating the best rom-com since My Big Fat Greek Wedding. What’s more, they’ve done it with a gimmick so brilliant, every other writer in history is currently kicking themselves for not doing it first: by basing the story on their own crazy relationship.
Kumail Nanjiani (obviously playing himself) is a struggling stand-up comedian and Uber driver living in Chicago. He meets Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), a grad student studying to be a therapist, when she heckles his show, and their rapport is instantaneous. After the occasional hookup or two, they fall in love and become a couple. However, there are a few major roadblocks. You see, Kumail is a first generation Pakistani Muslim, and his parents are adamant that he has an arranged marriage with another Pakistani Muslim. Despite his lax views on his religion and his desire to pursue love on his own, he’s too afraid to stand up to his own family, for fear of disownment. This seems like the end of the couple, until fate intervenes. You see, Emily has a rare disease that has infected her lungs, requiring her to be put in a medically induced coma. Realizing his feelings for her, Kumail decides to wait for her to wake up, no matter how long that will be, and finds himself in the company of Emily’s on-edge parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). The reluctant group bonds through the power of love, family, and general good-heartedness. And I promise, it is a comedy.
This is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve, and that just makes it so damn likable. It’s a film where love flows free in all its forms – love for a significant other, love for family, and just general love for our fellow human beings. The interactions feel smart, fun, and real. I believe that these people are family, I believe that those people are friends, and I especially believe that all of the couples, be they arranged, struggling in domesticity, or just starting out, have a glorious basis of love. Nanjiani and Gordon get all of the little details right, and they do it in laugh-out-loud funny ways. Some of my favorite scenes involve an embarrassing late night bathroom run, the ever-real litmus test of bad movies, and the hilariously awkward experience of having your mother try to set you up with the “perfect girl.” These are experiences made specific to Kumail and Emily’s lives, and yet they are so universal that anyone can relate, regardless of race, gender, or religion. It knows how people interact, and I love watching these particular people do that. I adore every scene with Kumail and Emily, and yet my favorite sequences involve the family dynamics. The film knows how to humanize and empathize with every family member, even when it doesn’t agree with everything they say or do. It’s a bit like My Big Fat Greek Wedding in that way, although I think they are too different to compare outright. A better comparison would be Master of None, which has gone over similar territory in recent episodes, and while I think that show fleshes the ideas out a bit more, they also had more time to develop, making The Big Sick all the more impressive.
I think the thing that makes this movie sing is that the main couple just works. The great thing about a married couple writing the dialogue for themselves is they can infuse the script with that natural banter that makes every great relationship sing. The minute the characters of Kumail and Emily start exchanging barbs in a bar, you can tell that these characters belong together. It’s one of the most important details of a healthy relationship – so many of the best relationships I’ve seen are founded on the fact that they had an instant rapport from day one. The list of movies that get this aspect right is slim to none, with the only two I can think of in all of history being When Harry Met Sally… and Silver Linings Playbook. That’s a shockingly low number for such a given in screenwriting, and I think that’s because it’s so deceptively simple. Not everyone can write perfectly real, perfectly funny, and perfectly loving dialogue, and I think Nanjiani and Gordon deserve as much praise as humanly possible for doing it so well.
The film also knows how to walk the line between inspiration and stylistic copy. Nanjiani and Gordon have stated in multiple interviews that their inspiration in writing this film came from the films of Richard Curtis, the man behind Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. And what’s so charming is, while that’s true, it really never feels like it’s connected. Oh, there are traces of the same DNA: the sexual first meeting, the group of friends that share the same longing as our protagonist (and what fun Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham have in these roles), and a sense of melancholy that never drowns out the heartwarming optimism. However, it never feels like the couple is trying to be like their mentor, only invoking him for inspiration. They are a unique force on their own, and they require no assistance in making their film great on its own merits. What’s also amazing is how they manage to take their few stumbling blocks and actually build them to something. Most of the time, when movies have a misstep, they falter for a bit as they try to recover. The Big Sick manages to disguise its wrong turns and fully recover, like a skilled gymnast covering her mistake. To clarify, there are two scenes in the movie that don’t exactly work the way the film wants them to. I won’t give them away, but one involves a frat boy heckler in a bar and the other involves a nighttime conversation between Nanjiani and Romano. Neither scene is bad, but they don’t feel like they are properly executed or handled. However, while a lesser film would struggle for a few minutes to recover, The Big Sick takes them in stride, and actually uses them to build to important moments for character development. Not many movies can take their flaws and turn them into positives, and I think this movie deserves credit for that feat.
Every performance in this movie shines. Obviously, the heart of this movie has to be Nanjiani, who has to play himself at his best and at his worst, and he delivers every line with pitch-perfect inflection, be it a horribly funny joke or a tear-filled monologue about love. Luckily, he gets some aid from Zoe Kazan, one of the most underrated actresses in Hollywood. Kazan is a firecracker in this role, taking a role that very much has to sit in the back seat for most of the movie and fleshing her out to be three-dimensional. It’s no coincidence that you feel her presence even when she’s lying in a hospital bed unconscious. She is perfectly cast, and not just because she actually looks like the real-life Emily Gordon. It’s because she has perfect chemistry with Kumail, and knows how to make this couple so damn likable. Two truly great performances come from Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, two Indian actors who steal scenes as Kumail’s caring but overbearing parents. Kher in particular has some terrific scenes as the stereotypically funny Pakistani father. However, if I’m being quite honest, this film belongs to Romano and Hunter. I never would have thought to put the Academy Award-winning actress who broke out in intelligent eighties comedies with the quintessential TV dad in a movie, but somehow the two of them have created a flawed but loving couple many years into their marriage. You can actually feel the history between these two characters, and I don’t know if there are two characters you want to root for as much as these two, with their little tics and traits picked up over the years. Hunter has a few firecracker moments, including one that comes from the simple act of touching a coat, but Romano is the real revelation here. We’ve seen him be funny on Everybody Loves Raymond, and we’ve seen him try drama on Men of a Certain Age, but we’ve rarely seen him as great as he is here. I think we’ve truly underestimated his abilities as an actor, and I cannot thank Nanjiani and Gordon enough for allowing us to see his hidden talent.
All of this is a long-winded list of reasons for why I loved this movie. However, I think I can sum it all up with this analysis: I damn near cried during this movie. I cried tears of laughter, I cried tears of joy, I cried because my heart was warmed time and time again. This is why people love rom coms, and to a greater extent, movies. It’s a movie that will leave a smile on your face and a pain in your side. It’ll remind you why human beings take the plunge into the messy, horrible, wonderful ocean that is relationships, hoping we can find the person that makes us feel completely happy. I’m glad that Kumail and Emily allowed us to join them on their journey to find that in each other. It was certainly worth it.