The Big Sick boldly stretches the parameters of romantic comedy. The movie is romantic, and it's very funny; but it also reaches out into unexpected areas of marital love, immigrant families, even life-threatening disease The premise might seem farfetched: Pakistani standup comic almost finds happiness with white-girl grad student and then almost loses her but then—whew!—doesn't. But the movie has the tang and specificity of real life. It was written by its star, Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley), and his wife (and onetime podcast and Meltdown partner), Emily V. Gordon, and it tells the tale of how they met, and how things went really wrong for them before finally going right. It's probably not a lot like any story of this sort that you've heard before—which is of course part of what makes it such a great film.
The picture opens in a Chicago comedy club. Kumail is up onstage and Emily (played with maximum adorability by Zoe Kazan) is sitting in the audience with friends, commenting a little too loudly on Kumail's act. One thing leads to another and they wind up going back to his place together. Personal details are shared. He drives for Uber to make ends meet. She was a goth in high school, nickname "Beetlejuice" (there are photos). Snuggled in front of a TV, they start making out midway through Night of the Living Dead, then go to bed. Things look good.
But Kumail has another life outside of comedy world, one that's centered on his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shrof). They brought him to America when he was a kid, and they still honor old ways. As observant Muslims, they want their son to grow a beard, assent to an arranged marriage (mom keeps an endless procession of suitable young women "dropping by"), and adhere to the Muslim prayer regimen. (Kumail goes down to their basement to pray – or says he does. Actually, he's a non-believer, and he just watches videos.) Kumail loves his folks, but the cultural pressure they exert is wearing. "Why did we move here," he asks them, "if we just live like we were back there?"
Meanwhile, Emily wants Kumail to meet her parents, and she wants to meet his. Then she learns that he hasn't yet dared to tell his folks about her, and she blows up. "I can't lose my family," he says hopelessly. "Can you imagine a world in which we end up together?" she says. And that seems to be that.
Here, director Michael Showalter—a longtime Nanjiani comedy colleague—gracefully negotiates a serious left turn in the story. Kumail has reluctantly moved on from Emily—but then he gets a call one night that she's in the hospital with a mysterious disease. When he arrives at her bedside, doctors tell him they're going to put her into an induced coma until they can figure out what the problem is—and suddenly we lose Zoe Kazan for most of the rest of the movie. This is a sizeable setback. Fortunately, Emily is soon replaced by her parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter), who fly in from North Carolina and soon deepen the story with new tones of regret and devotion.
Kumail doesn't quite connect with these two at first—his funny-man deadpan is hard to read. (When Terry asks him how he feels about 9/11, Kumail says, "It was a tragedy. I mean, we lost 19 of our best guys.") Eventually, though, being smart and good-hearted people, they do bond, and Kumail learns that Terry and Beth are having troubles in their own relationship. Love is tough, Terry says—"that's why they call it love." Nanjiani lets a perfectly timed moment pass and then says, "I don't really get that."
I can't recall Hunter or Romano ever being more affecting than they are here (which in Hunter's case, especially, is remarkable). Terry and Beth's long-enduring love may be scuffed, but it still shines. Kazan vibrates with creative energy in rounding out her spirited character. And Kher and Shrof, as Kumail's parents, Azmat and Sharmeen, give a full representation of people who find life's form and meaning in tradition. (They, too, have a sense of humor, though: at one mock-troubled point, Azmat, bidding Kumail goodbye, says, "It was nice to have you as a son.")
The big breakthrough here, though, is Nanjiani, who gives the most delicate of star performances—never pushing or stooping to a simple wisecrack. His face has an Old Hollywood repose, but his eyes can melt into pools of concern with barely a flicker of transition. His dutiful son doesn't resent his parents' beliefs, or the old world they carry around with them. But he seeks a larger life; and when we hear him enthusing to Emily about a great cult movie (The Abominable Dr. Phibes), or see him actually wearing a Swingin' Medallions t-shirt, we realize that deep inside, he's already all-American.