After the turmoil filled journey that was Dunkirk, I listened to my heart and decided that I needed my next trip to the cinema to be something of a much lighter nature. Of course, me being me, the prospect of a straight forward romantic comedy wasn’t something that particularly appealed, so The Big Sick came along at just the right time. Advertised as laugh out loud comedy with a bittersweet edge, I hoped to enjoy something more poignant than the usual ‘odd couple’ affair that has been done again and again and again.
And, on the whole, I’m pleased to report that The Big Sick achieves what it promises. Written by married creative team Kumail Nanjuiani and Emily V. Gordon, the film tells the true life story of their romance, from their blossoming relationship to the obstacle of cultural difference to the life threatening illness that eventually brought them back together. Nanjiani plays himself in the picture with actress Zoe Kazan portraying Emily, and the narrative takes the audience on emotional journey filled with the brand of cynical yet weirdly hopeful comedy that really hits the spot. The film manages to deftly blend several different themes together in a single, slick package that are usually big enough to take centre stage all on their own. Topics covered include arranged married, culturally mixed romance, family secrets and the inevitable tensions and conflicts that arise from the nomination of those factors, but for film whose main themes could easily be translated in to a heavy drama, The Big Sick always manages to stay in a delightfully light place, only hitting us with the hard stuff when needed to make the biggest impact.
As for the film’s comic sensibilities, those who enjoy broad, observational comedy will find lots to like. Percentage wise, I would say that 75% of the film’s humour worked for me. You won’t find much boundary pushing or risk taking being done, but most of the cultural, parental, and relationship based jokes are solid and make the audience feel like they are in a safe pair of hands. The interesting angle that the picture takes leaves the majority of screen time not for interaction between Kumail and Emily, but for Kumail and Emily’s parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). This creates an unusual and enjoyable dynamic that was made almost irreversibly hacky thanks to the likes of Meet The Parents, but in The Big Sick there is a great vein of more subtle comedy and all important poignancy to be found in the ‘potentially problematic in-laws’ trope.
Arguably the best compliment that one can pay The Big Sick is that it is enjoyably sweet without ever being saccharine, a hard tight rope to walk in the realm of romantic comedy. Sentimentality is played to perfection in the spots where it is needed, and for a film about life threatening illness and true love, the narrative never feels manipulative or pandering. It’s a picture that feels reassuringly familiar whilst at the same time presenting elements from different cultures that are rarely explored in mainstream rom-com. This combination makes for a heartfelt and endearing viewing experience, with that edge of cynical comedy to keep both the audience and the story on its toes.
Playing a version go himself, Kumail Nanjiani brings a wonderful authenticity to his on screen role. He’s sweet, he’s vulnerable, he’s hilarious and you can tell that this story means a lot to him. As Emily, Zoe Kazan is effortlessly likeable, and if the on screen chemistry the pair share is even a tenth of what the real life couple enjoy, then they’ve got a marriage for the ages. Playing vital roles in the piece are Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents Terry and Beth. Giving a similar performance to his role in the dear departed family drama Parenthood, Romano as Terry is an endearing presence who plays a great straight man to Hunter’s more energetic, boisterous Beth. As pair, they are dynamite, and the initially awkward but eventually heartwarming trio that they form with Kumail as they await Emily’s fate is a wonderful thing to see blossom on screen.
A lot of the broader, more ‘obvious’ comedy is played out in the home and dinner scenes with Kumail’s Pakistani family played by the likes of Adeel Akhtar, Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher and Shenaz Treasury, but that’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable in the right doses. With the theme of arranged marriage being a potentially awkward or tone changing element, the filmmakers and performers to well do navigate the topic with a hand on either side of the fence, as it were. Some of the usual cultural difference jokes are indulged at different times, but against the more cynical comedy of the scenes with Romano and Hunter, this feels like a more pleasurable balance than if the entire film were operating under those cliches.
Overall, The Big Sick is a great romantic comedy. A film that offers a lot more than the standard summer releases in the genre usually do. It’s smart, it’s sweet, it’s funny, it’s poignant and it’s incredibly heartfelt. With a story so literally close to home for Kumail Nanjiani, how it could it be anything but?