The Big Sick is a thoroughly enjoyable and cute rom-com, with just enough depth underneath the surface to elevate the film beyond its genre trappings. Based on the true story of how actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani met his wife (this section of writing is practically obligatory), The Big Sick tells the story of Kumail (Nanjiani, as himself) and Emily (Zoe Kazan, vibrant; the two have excellent chemistry). You see, Kumail is Pakistani and his parents want him to have an arranged marriage with a Pakistani girl; and, just when Kumail reveals the truth of his life to Emily, she falls sick and is put into a coma. Not your average rom-com, and the dark twist would almost feel like the kind of melodramatic twist of a Nicholas Sparks novel if it weren’t based on real events.
That’s not to say that the only reason that this film elevates beyond the rom-com genre conventions is because of its basis in reality; the specificity with which The Big Sick deals with Kumail’s Pakistani identity, and the chemistry between Kazan and Nanjiani, allow the core storyline to feel more real and grounded than this genre often allows for. There’s a real empathy in The Big Sick; every character is meant to be sympathetic, even the ones who are nominally villains.
Late in the film, Kumail’s mom excommunicates him from the family, laying down the harsh line that dating a non-Pakistani girl is a bridge too far. She could easily feel villainous and cruel, but the film has taken care to really show us her world-view, to make us understand exactly where she’s coming from; it’s hard to watch, almost tragic, but you never come out of it feeling like she’s anything but a real person who just wants the best for her son. Every major character here is allowed to be sympathetic, to be funny, to be the butt of jokes, and the joke-makers, to be shown at both high and low points. Characters having this level of depth shouldn’t be so rare in the rom-com genre, but it is. The characters here behave like real people; when Zoe Kazan wakes up from her coma, we expect her to instantly fall back in love with Kumail; that’s not reality, and these things take time. But we get why she does it, and we never blame her for it.
The balance between comedy and drama here is just about perfect, which is crucial as the back half of the film veers into darker territory; this balance helps keep the film from becoming too dark or too saccharine; there’s a strong awareness of the potential pitfalls of this story. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, who appear here as Emily’s parents, give effective nuanced performances, Romano as the goon-ish goofy dad and Hunter as the tenaciously proud lioness of a mom. Nanjiani shows new depth here with a performance that clearly stretches to the limits of his acting ability.
Ultimately, The Big Sick is an imperfect movie; it’s probably 20 minutes too long, and the way that it sets aside the main relationship of the film for most of the second half is problematic even if it’s an inherent feature of the film structure. Still, that a film like this, a rom-com, has been the sleeper hit of the summer, is a real testament. If nothing else, how rare is it to see a Pakistani actor as the lead in a box-office hit? I wonder how many people got their first real exposure to Pakistani culture from watching this film, how many learned about a culture they didn’t even know existed.
Filmmaking in any genre is often lazy least-common-denominator fare, but the rom-com genre has been particularly afflicted by this disease of late. I don’t expect a renaissance of the genre any time soon, but it’s great to see that there’s still some vitality to a genre that deserves better.