American romantic comedies can be roughly divided into two categories: Films with characters who live idyllic lives in which love is their only real problem, and films in which real problems are either obstacles to or catalysts for love. It’s the difference between Sixteen Candles and Pretty In Pink or It’s Complicated and You’ve Got Mail. Both approaches have produced classics. The latter, though, often has the shorter distance to real emotional oomph, particularly among viewers who are quick to dismiss romcoms in the first place.
The Big Sick falls into the latter category, in large part because it’s based on the real-life courtship of its co-writers, Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. In a different world with a different set of producers, the film could’ve become an anti-romcom, a cold and cynical exercise in saying “Screw that saccharine Jennifer Aniston bullshit, man. This movie’s real.” Thankfully for all of us, this did not happen. On the strength of a wonderful script, a stellar cast and tons of heart, The Big Sick instead embraced its romcom leanings whenever possible while charting its own path whenever it had to. The result is a warm, hilarious and triumphant film capable of winning over even the most jaded viewer.
Kumail (Nanjiani) is doing stand-up in Chicago when the film opens, looking for his big break and avoiding his Pakistani parents’ not-so-subtle attempts to rope him into an arranged marriage. Then he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan), a grad student who wants to be a therapist and doesn’t want to get tangled up in a romantic relationship. After what’s supposed to be a one-night stand, the two quickly find that they can’t stay away from each other. All this, even as Kumail continues to hide his American girlfriend from his family. The romance suffers a body blow when Emily finds out that not only has Kumail never told his family about her, but he’s also still meeting Pakistani women at his mother’s behest. Then, a sudden illness strikes, sending Emily into a medically induced coma. Unsure of what to do, Kumail ends up at the hospital, where he must navigate Emily’s icy parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) and decide what he really wants.
In another film, one that played more strictly by romcom rules, this would be too much plot. It would either be about the arranged marriage culture clash or meeting the parents while the woman you love is in a coma, but not both. It’s perhaps the first sign that The Big Sick wants to go its own way. Even within those two concurrent storylines, it wouldn’t be surprising to see one of them emerge as silly comedy while the other is allowed to carry the heavy emotional weight. Here again, the film refuses to follow that pattern. Nanjaini and Gordon’s touch is so light it makes the plot juggling look easy. Michael Showalter’s expert direction does the rest. He knows exactly when to lean into the hard stuff and when to pump the brakes. Their mutual sense of timing is responsible for some of the film’s biggest belly laughs. When Kumail finally does get Emily’s parents to have a real conversation with him, you can feel how exhausted and scared all three characters are. Then the film’s most awkward and instantly hilarious joke kicks in and the whole theater relaxes into the rest of the movie like magic. It’s a tough trick to pull off but the tremendous amount of heart packed into the film makes it work.
Even as The Big Sick goes to places that other romcoms might avoid, though, its love for the genre is obvious. Nanjiani and Gordon took inspiration from, among other things, a deep love of Four Weddings and a Funeral. All the great courtship moments are there, from the meet-cute to the moment things get serious to one of the most endearing conversations about bodily functions you’ll ever see. The Big Sick has the Fun Best Friend dynamic going for it too thanks to Kurt Braunohler, Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant as Kumail’s comedy buddies. The film’s certainly not about them, but you may be wishing they had their own movie by the time it’s over. Kazan is predictably wonderful, Nanjiani proves himself as a leading man and Hunter and Romano team up to deliver some of the best “meet the parents” scenes in romcom history. If you’re here for all of those delightful feel-good love story trappings, The Big Sick will never stop delivering.
By the time the real meat of the story kicks in, you’re watching a film that’s happily on a course all its own without arrogance or disdain for any particular genre formula. The Big Sick is a very specific film and not just because it’s a retelling of something that actually happened. Nanjiani, Gordon, Showalter and their collaborators aren’t just out to tell a true-to-life story. They’re out to say something about the endless complexities of love, how one kind can wound another and how eventually it all blends into one heart. The Big Sick is a love story not just about a man and a woman from different backgrounds but also about how our family’s love molds us. It’s a film about embracing where you came from while making your own way and learning to love your past even as you try to mold your future. As sappy as it may sound, it’s a film about love as a universal language that always wins, something that shouldn’t be lost on you as you watch its endearing and fully formed Muslim characters in this political climate.
Whether you are a rabid romcom consumer or a cynical moviegoer hoping for a good date night, The Big Sick will win you over. It’s a beautifully rendered, endlessly rewarding film destined to rank among the best romantic comedies of this century so far.
The Big Sick opens in New York and Los Angeles June 23, in select cities June 30 and nationwide on July 14.