Out of Sundance, the praise burst forth for comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his touching rom-com The Big Sick. Fast and furious came claims that Nanjiani is the new internet boyfriend, the new thinking woman’s crush, etc. etc. To that, us Overlords say, ‘New? Honey, where have you been?’
We’ve not only been preaching the gospel of Hot Kumail for years around these parts, we’ve also been crushing on his real-life wife/co-producer/co-writer of The Big Sick, Emily V. Gordon. We’ve been psyched for The Big Sick even before we were invited to the set (a rarity for the site known for scathing reviews by bitchy people!) Finally, after months of hearing Sundancing colleagues rave about the rom-com to change all rom-coms, I saw The Big Sick. And guys. It’s just what we expected. It’s cute, funny, and vulnerable. The rest of the world is finally catching up to crushing on Nanjiani and Gordon.
The Big Sick follows a struggling stand-up comic named Kumail (Nanjiani) and the aspiring therapist Emily (Zoe Kazan), who catches his attention with a well-intentioned heckle. They hit it off instantly, but between her busy class schedule and his trying to get a comedy career off the ground, now is not the time for a relationship. Still, their chemistry can’t be denied. Nonetheless, their relationship hits a wall when Emily discovers Kumail’s Pakistani parents—who know nothing of her—are pushing him into an arranged marriage with a good Muslim girl. Before they can deal, she falls into a coma that strands him at her side, with her parents who hate him for breaking her heart (Holly Hunter as a no-nonsense mom and Ray Romano as the flustered dad).
Longtime fans of this charming nerd couple know this is pretty much Nanjiani and Gordon’s real-life story. But the partners in life and comedy are smart enough to tweak some details to amp up the drama and laughs. As a loyal fan of the now defunct Meltdown, I worried no onscreen “Emily” could muster the effervescent natural chemistry Gordon shares with Nanjiani. But Kazan nails the tricky part, playing a sharply witty, sex-positive, confident young woman. You root for their happy ending from the moment she gives Kumail shit for a napkin-centered pick-up line. And acting out his own love story, Nanjiani finally gets an onscreen role more complicated than his many, many supporting turns.
The movie uses Kumail’s stand-up act and an overambitious one-man-show to explore his conflict over the culture clash of his Pakistani parents and his American peers. He loves his parents, respects their culture, but is not devoutly Muslim or particularly interested in marrying a woman he barely knows. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but The Big Sick does so with compassion, being sure to offer Kumail’s onscreen family’s perspective on their choices. Notably, the arranged marriage issue isn’t presented as nearly as damning as Kumail’s decision to hide it completely from Emily. It’s when she stumbles upon headshots of wannabe brides that their relationship melts down, leaving him to pick up the pieces with her fiercely protective mother. And imagine having Holly Hunter mad at you. When she narrows her eyes, it’s shocking Kumail doesn’t explode from her laser-focused ire.
Playing Kumail’s comedy club colleagues, Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant brings sparks of spicier humor. Burnham ditches his stoic shtick to play a more acerbic stand-up, and his performance is sure to get him cast in more of the Apatow crew’s films. But Bryant had me rolling, wishing her comic—who shares entries from her childhood diary of being big-busted and all-the-awkward—gets a spinoff of her own. When she responds to a shitty situation with, “I felt one of my eggs die…I felt it,” I let out a laugh that would be best suited to a haunted house. Comedian Kurt Braunohler holds it down as Kumail’s socially awkward roommate, and Romano digs deep to pull off of some of the film’s biggest dramatic turns. While his acting here is far more nuanced than Everybody Loves Raymond, the former sitcom star still comes off a bit forced in the face of Nanjiani’s naked vulnerability and Hunter’s fiery momma bear.
Through this uncomfortable bonding with Emily’s parents, Kumail comes to realize what he wants, in his work, in his love life, with his family. And it’s a riveting narrative. But as is the case with so many Apatow movies, things go a bit off the rails in act two, wedging in cautionary tales from supporting characters, and letting gags go long, chasing a joke that’s not always worth the effort. I mean, this is a rom-com that’s nearly two hours long. After a first act that’s rollicking and romantic, with a city-kid wit, Kumail has no Emily to talk to, and so the film loses focus scouring for others to weigh in on his every move. Still, the third act gets things back on track with a sharp but not saccharine conclusion.
All in all, The Big Sick is darling. Nanjiani and Kazan create an onscreen couple as charismatic and compelling as Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. The humor is warm yet whip-smart, playfully poking at modern dating, race, and one really risky but hysterical 9/11 joke. Those who know the joys of Nanjiani and Gordon will be satisfied, as they’ve channeled their enviable and geeky romance into a quirky love story that folds in The X-Files, Night of the Living Dead and The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Those who are new to them will be easily enchanted by their script that’s big-hearted and hilarious, a cast that’s all-around charming, and a happy ending that’ll have you grinning so hard it hurts.
The Big Sick opens in limited release on June 23rd. A national rollout will follow July 14th.