The rule of thumb to anyone trying to compose a script, novel or even original tweet is to write what you know. Proof of how well that advice works can be found in “The Big Sick,” the story penned by Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) and his wife Emily V. Gordon (“The Meltdown with Jonathan and Kumail”) based on their real-life courtship.
It must have been an intriguing courtship because the script that their romance inspired is stacked with more layers than a $100,000 wedding cake. What starts out looking like a sweet rom-com (and would have been a great date movie on that alone) dips into some very poignant discussions of race, religion, horror movies and stand-up comedy. If you come to a place in “The Big Sick” that doesn’t seem to be all that interesting, just wait a moment because something that will grab your attention will come along.
All of these examinations of some of the big questions in life unfold against the backdrop of the Chicago comedy club world. Pakistan-born Kumail (Nanjiani) has ignored the disgrace he’s brought to his judgmental family and continues to chase a career as a stand-up comic. After one show, Kumail confronts Emily (Zoe Kazan), because she heckled him during the performance. They disagree on the definition of heckling but agree to end the evening in such a way that neither of them will be standing up.
Their relationship starts and stops mostly because Kumail can’t tell his parents that he has no interest in an arranged marriage to any of the endless parade of women they push on him. He knows that if his parents find out he’s dating the very non-Pakistani Emily they will throw him out of the family.
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Just when the relationship seems finished, Kumail returns to Emily’s life when she’s rushed to the hospital and ends up in a medically induced coma. The arrival of Emily’s parents (Ray Romano, Holly Hunter) and the continuing pressures from his own parents push Kumail to begin questioning where he wants to be in his life.
Director Michael Showalter uses the same great skill at bringing together different worlds that he showed in “Hello My Name is Doris.” In that film, the bullet points were mostly to do with aging. In “The Big Sick,” Showalter tackles other issues, such as dealing with family when it comes to the collision of differences. Kumail wants to believe that the troubles he’s having at home are particular to his background but learns through Emily’s parents that those issues are shared by people around the world. Showalter makes some very serious points without tearing apart the tapestry of the romance.
On the issue of finding the right career, Showalter smoothly weaves in the life at the comedy club to tell some very dear and real stories about knowing when to chase a dream and when it is time to wake up. He does the same thing with race issues, a topic that can be explosive if not handled with this kind of skill.
None of this would work without beautiful performances by Nanjiani and Kazan. Not only does he bring a wonderful dry humor to the role but he’s very comfortable in big emotional moments, whether it be dealing with being a called a terrorist or confronting Emily’s emotionally raw parents. A lesser actor would have made both sequences uncomfortable, but Nanjiani handles them with the proper emotions.
Part of the reason his performance is so good is Kazan, one of the most under-rated actors working in films. Just as she did in the 2012 feature “Ruby Sparks,” Kazan shows an incredible ability to play a character who is equally strong and vulnerable. She can take control of a moment with sweet humor or a commanding look. But she’s at her best when she is facing an emotional black hole.
Nanjiani and Kazan have a natural chemistry that is needed to make this kind of movie work. The audience has to care enough about them that they feel a joy when they are together and must deal with a sadness when they are apart. Nanjiani had an edge since he lived the real story, but the project would have had only half of a heart without Kazan. It’s through the pair that this story of life, love and comedy comes across so touching, funny and attention holding. It all comes together to make this one of the best romantic comedies to hit theaters in a decade.
THE BIG SICK
3.5 out of 4 stars
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan. Ray Romano, Holly Hunter, Anupam Kher.
Director: Michael Showalter
Rating: R for language
Length: 119 minutes.