The Big Sick Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano. Directed by Michael Showalter. Rated R. Opens Friday in select theaters.
The broad narrative arc of The Big Sick isn’t that different from the average Hollywood romantic comedy: Two people from different backgrounds meet cute, develop a relationship around playful banter, have a misunderstanding that pushes them apart, then eventually reconcile and live happily ever after (presumably). Where the movie succeeds is in the personal specificity of the story, written by comedian Kumail Nanjiani (best known as Dinesh on HBO’s Silicon Valley) and his wife Emily V. Gordon, based on their real-life romance. Nanjiani plays a version of himself, an aspiring comedian in Chicago who meets grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan) at a show and begins a casual fling that soon turns into something potentially serious.
Kumail has trouble telling his traditional Pakistani family that he’s dating a white girl, while Emily, who’s open with her parents about everything, doesn’t understand his struggles. Nanjiani and Gordon balance the conflict well, showing the cultural disconnect without making either character into the villain. Nanjiani and Kazan have a wonderfully relaxed chemistry that makes their connection believable, and the script finds humor in relatable situations without resorting to the ridiculous comedic set pieces that are crutches for so many mainstream rom-coms.
It’s almost a shame, then, that Emily spends the entire middle of the movie in a coma, thanks to a mysterious illness. But that’s what shows Kumail the true power of their relationship, as he bonds with Emily’s parents (warmly played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) and builds the courage to stand up to his own. Director Michael Showalter has made more offbeat takes on the rom-com formula (The Baxter, Hello My Name Is Doris), but here he mostly steps back and lets Nanjiani and Gordon tell their story, keeping things running smoothly and without any distractions. The Big Sick doesn’t reinvent its genre (most of the developments, aside from sudden unexplained illness, are pretty predictable), but it doesn’t have to. It delivers a real love story with real humor from real people, and the movies can always use more of those.