Director: Michael Showalter
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano
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Lauded as a highlight of this year’s Sundance line-up and subsequently picked up by Amazon Studios in the second-largest deal of the festival, Kumail Nanjiani’s autobiographical film delivers on its hype with a brilliantly scripted, emotionally involving and amusing story of cross-cultural romance.
Based on Nanjiani’s real-life romance with his now-wife and co-writer, Emily V. Gordan, The Big Sick follows Chicago-based Pakistani comedian Kumail (Nanjiani) who falls for grad student Emily (Kazan), after she playfully heckles him during one of his stand-up gigs. Their one-night stand quickly develops into something more, although Kumail’s traditional Muslim background complicates matters. His devout Muslim parents fervently introduce him to a different eligible Pakistani woman at every family dinner. The truth is Kumail will never agree to an arranged marriage – a fact he won’t admit to his parents. So, he keeps his Caucasian girlfriend a secret from his family, something that doesn’t go down too well with Emily when she finds out.
This first part of the narrative works perfectly well on its own terms as a sweetly humorous rom-com. Nanjiani and Kazan both put in beautifully genuine performances and their connection feels palpably authentic. It’s refreshing to see such a fully-rounded Indian character and interracial relationship represented on screen. There are plenty of laughs to be had too – many of them coming via Kumail’s stand-up chums, who are terrifically played by Bo Burnham, Kurt Braunohler and Aidy Bryant.
The film suddenly transforms when Emily is diagnosed with a mysterious illness and is placed into a medically induced coma just weeks after her relationship troubles with Kumail. Cue the arrival of Emily’s parents, Beth (Hunter) and Terry (Romano), from North Carolina. From here, the film evolves into a romantic comedy between Kumail and Emily’s parents, as they slowly bond over the challenging situation they find themselves in.
It’s a narrative shift that completely works, thanks to Hunter and Romano’s superbly textured performances. The pair deftly rise to the various dramatic and comedic demands of the script, as well as developing an engaging, emotionally complex and humorous relationship with Kumail. At two hours long, The Big Sick could be more concise, yet the characterisations are so well written that you hardly mind spending more time in this world – even Nanjiani’s family feel fully-realised, despite their limited screen-time.
Considering the poignant subject matter, it would have been easy for The Big Sick to become saccharine in its latter stages, but Nanjiani and Gordan have penned a perceptive, sharp and darkly funny script, which avoids the clichés of other rom-coms. Michael Showalter’s unobtrusive directing style also helps foreground the brilliance of the screenplay and its timely look at issues of tradition, discrimination and acceptance. Admirably, the final act doesn’t feel the need to tie up every conflict or loose-end and it’s this honest, affecting approach to storytelling that makes it so easy to become emotionally wrapped up in the film’s heartfelt tale.
The Big Sick is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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