Romantic-comedies are often dismissed as “chick flicks” and, in all honesty, they have every right to be – the majority of these films are pandering melodramas with one-dimensional characters designed to appeal to the supposed emotional vulnerabilities of females. So on the rare occasion that a rom-com doesn’t possess those elements, it deserves to be celebrated.
The Big Sick is based, in part, on the life of Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani-American most famous for his television and voice-over work. In the film, Nanjiani plays a fictitious version of himself who earns money as an Uber driver, a job taken to support his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. One evening, during his regular routine at a Chicago comedy club, Kumail is heckled by a young woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) who he is immediately smitten by.
In the weeks that follow, Kumail and Emily develop a somewhat awkward, but otherwise genuine romance – one which is doomed to fail, for as per the customs of Pakistan, Kumail is to partake in an arranged marriage at some point in the future. Upon hearing this information, a distraught Emily announces she is leaving Kumail, which at least provides the latter time to hone his stand-up material.
Just as he seems to be moving on from his break-up, Kumail receives a call from City West Hospital informing him that Emily is presently under observation with an undiagnosed illness. In the hours afterward, Emily is placed in a medically-induced coma, with Kumail given the responsibility of breaking the bad news to her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) who immediately leave their North Carolina home to attend their daughter’s bedside.
What’s most pleasing about The Big Sick is its fresh and original characters. When watching this movie, one doesn’t see actors on-screen, but people – individuals with unusual, but not unbelievable, traits and eccentricities. It is quite easy to understand their grievances, and one can sympathise with their motivations despite how curt they appear. A good example of this would be Kumail’s mother (Zenobia Shroff) and father (Anupam Kher) who uphold their traditionalist values without coming across as arrogant or contrived.
Unfortunately, the conflict between Kumail and his (fictitious) parents is hardly imaginative, for it follows the same premise of another cross-cultural romantic-comedy based in Chicago, that being My Big Fat Greek Wedding. While any such disagreements are restricted to a sub-plot, they are distracting nonetheless. Another distraction is the sloppy, abrupt editing which doesn’t allow scenes to flow smoothly – this was probably done to shorten the film’s two-hour run-time.
That said, The Big Sick’s main focus is on the complexity of relationships, and how the protagonists deal with these dilemmas, a discussion which is made investing by the great performances. Both Hunter and Romano come across as very warm and genuine, with their juxtaposed personalities – Terry’s introverted, easy-going nature; Beth’s feisty candour – providing decent conflict. So wonderful are they that, in this reviewer’s opinion, they may even be worthy of Academy Award nominations come year’s end.
And they are not the only ones, for Zoe Kazan also has the potential to be nominated for an Oscar. Emily is the most distinctive and peculiar character in The Big Sick, and she is depicted brilliantly by Kazan – when Emily is placed in a coma, one isn’t sad because they empathise with her struggle, but because they no longer get to see Kazan act. Of all the performances in the film, Kazan’s is the most convincing, and the most astonishing.
The Big Sick is a rare kind of romantic-comedy that manages to be thoughtful and touching without being melodramatic or condescending. Alongside an interesting story, it has well-written characters that are humanised by the actors who portray them. Be prepared to see its name appear again during Awards Season.