The Big Sick isn’t your typical romantic comedy. First of all, it’s based on a true story—and while that isn’t unusual by itself, the movie’s main character is actually played by his real-life counterpart, Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani. As a result, the film is filled with odd references to Nanjiani’s life (such as his long-standing admiration for Hugh Grant), which makes its depiction of his cross-cultural romance with a white woman named Emily Gordon (Zoe Kazan) feel more genuine. However, the movie also stands out by taking Nanjiani’s love interest out of the picture for much of its running time, as she is placed in a medically induced coma while being treated for a mysterious and potentially life-threatening illness. This allows Kumail to reflect on the meaning of their relationship, while also bonding with her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) as they go through this harrowing experience together.
Director Michael Showalter (best known as a cast member of The State and Wet Hot American Summer) balances Nanjiani’s natural sense of humor with more reflective moments—neither of which undermines the other. Still, those expecting an all-out comedy are sure to be disappointed, as Nanjiani’s struggle to pursue his own desires while navigating the expectations of his traditional Muslim family remains the central focus throughout the film, with his experiences as an up-and-coming standup comedian relegated to a subplot. In fact, the funniest moments come during the casual scenes between Emily and Kumail, when his knack for spontaneous humor is brought to the fore.
The Big Sick has a tendency to be overwhelmingly sweet at times, unlike most of the films made in the mold of Judd Apatow (who also serves as a producer here). The fact that the script was written by the real-life Kumail and Emily (who are now married) might account for this tendency, although their lack of distance from the story’s events also works to the movie’s advantage, making even its smallest details feel fresh and immediate. There are times when the amount of nuance even starts to seem too personal, creating the feeling that we’re being let in on a couple’s most private moments and inside jokes.
The end result is a romantic comedy that feels believable and honest, with all of the actors giving charming performances that keep the proceedings upbeat and humorous despite the often melancholy subject matter. Nothing helps a romantic comedy more than the belief that what we’re seeing onscreen could actually happen; for this reason, The Big Sick is likely to be one of the more successful movies in this genre in recent memory, with Kumail Nanjiani’s triumphant love story always feeling as personal as it does funny and sentimental.