Two people who are currently happily married writing a romantic comedy about how they fell in love sounds like it could be a recipe for smug treacle, the movie equivalent of an overcurated Instagram feed. But Michael Showalter’s wise and tender The Big Sick, scripted by Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani and his wife and fellow comedy writer Emily Gordon, sidesteps that danger almost completely. This may be because The Big Sick isn’t quite classifiable as a rom-com, even though both Showalter and Nanjiani (who also stars as himself) have professed their intent to contribute to that genre. As its title implies, this movie centers around a major health crisis that interrupts the lead characters’ tentative courtship, changing their lives profoundly.
This intrusion of life-or-death medical drama into the comedic space helps give The Big Sick more experiential breadth than most standard-issue romantic comedies, which can sometimes seem to unfold on a globe populated entirely by attractive young friends drinking at brunch. The lead couple’s two sets of parents, rather than popping up periodically for comic relief, constitute an integral part of the story of how their children fell in love, broke up, and then found each other again. This movie keeps a lot of balls in the air: generational and cultural conflict, hospital drama, screwball banter—and only rarely lets one drop.
Kumail and Emily (Zoe Kazan) meet when she heckles him during a stand-up set in Chicago, where they both live. It isn’t a rude or drunken heckle, just an ill-placed “woo-hoo,” but as he explains to her later, any loud verbal feedback from the audience, even positive, can throw off a comedian’s timing. She’s half-apologetic and half-flirtatious, and they wind up spending the night together. Over the next few months, Emily and Kumail begin to fall in love despite their mutually declared unpreparedness to commit. They both want independence and time to focus on their careers—she’s getting a master’s in psychology, and he’s developing a stand-up act while driving an Uber—but they enjoy each other’s company too much to follow through on their promises to stop calling.
Meanwhile, Kumail’s Pakistani-born parents are pressuring him to meet girls from their immigrant community with an eye to arranged marriage—a concept that’s alien to their thoroughly assimilated son, even though his older brother Naveed (a dryly funny Adeel Akhtar) is more than fine with the mate their parents found for him. His effusive father (Bollywood star Anupam Kher) and hovering mother (Zenobia Shroff) have Kumail’s best interests at heart, but they don’t really know their younger son. As is established early in the romantic plot, Kumail is emotionally reserved to a fault, so his way of negotiating between the pressure at home and the intensity of this new love affair is to keep secrets on both sides. He tells his family nothing about the non-Muslim woman he’s fallen for, and he tells that woman nothing about his parents’ dream of marrying him off to a nice, Urdu-speaking young lady. When she finds out about this double lie of omission, Emily is both crushed and enraged, and she breaks up with Kumail on the spot—although given how many times we’ve seen them part only to come together again, it’s hard to believe it’s over between them for good.
Very soon afterward, Emily is stricken by a mysterious illness, an internal infection so severe she’s placed in a medically induced coma while a team of doctors tries different treatment strategies. (If only American hospitals were as well-run and insurance as seldom mentioned as in the movies … but that way madness lies.) Kumail is called to the intensive care unit by Emily’s friend—who then disappears for the rest of the movie, an odd dropped thread in a movie this thick with plot—and as he waits at the hospital for news, he’s thrown into close contact with Emily’s frantic parents, who have flown in from North Carolina.
Here, about one-third of the way through, The Big Sick makes an abrupt shift in tone from emotionally observant romantic comedy to tense hospital drama, though it continues to be laced with dark humor. The protagonists shift, too, with the tense relationship between Emily’s parents temporarily eclipsing the broken-off affair between Kumail and the now-comatose Emily. Terry (a wistfully funny Ray Romano) and Beth (a fiercely intense Holly Hunter) are going through a rough patch in their marriage but are firmly united in their love for their daughter. They both also happen to be emotionally labile oversharers, a quality that discomfits the taciturn Kumail.
At times The Big Sick’s capaciousness of heart can make it feel a little … roomy. The two-hour running time doesn’t exactly zip by; there are some narrative valleys to cross in the second half, including a largely unnecessary subplot about Kumail’s comedy-club buddies. (This might be the right place to mention that a producer and key consultant on this project was Judd Apatow, whose eye for emerging comic talents like Nanjiani is unerring but whose feature films have been known to sag around the middle.)
This slackening of pace might also be attributable to the functional absence, for the middle third or so of the movie, of the wonderful Zoe Kazan. Her Emily is a slightly frayed live wire who, acting as a foil to Nanjiani’s deadpan, phlegmatic character, brings a jolt of energy to the early scenes—especially the memorable breakup scene, in part the result of on-set improvisation between Nanjiani and Kazan. It’s rare that a couple breaking up on screen both seem to have a legitimate side to argue. Kumail did do Emily wrong by hiding their relationship from his family, but he’s also facing a kind of familial and cultural pressure that she isn’t fully equipped to understand. Neither one seems completely in the wrong, they both say self-dramatizing things you’ve probably said at some point in your life, and no one would doubt, watching them cry and yell and curse at each other, that they are madly in love. The mere fact this scene stays with me enough that I’m still parsing its complex emotional grammar a day later should serve as proof that The Big Sick is a romantic comedy outside the usual run.