Sometimes truth is infinitely stranger than fiction. Case in point, look at the romantic comedy interrupted that is The Big Sick. Loosely based on the real life courtship between co-writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick is a thoughtful examination of the ties that bind us together, be they familial or chosen.
We begin in the normal romantic comedy formula: boy (Nanjiani playing a variation of himself) meets-cute with girl (Zoe Kazan), complications arise first in the form of different backgrounds then in the form of a medically induced coma, an action that causes those looking for a routine rom-com payout to get a serious case of blue balls. Into this emotional turbulence comes the girl’s parents, and The Big Sick takes us into more dramatic and pricklier territory than we initially anticipated.
But yes, it’s still funny. Maybe not gut-busting funny, but in a more low key way that charms you with its accurate observations of place or the minutia of its various characters. Although, given Kumail’s aspirations of standup comedy, we do get plenty of behind-the-scenes riffs between him and his standup buddies. These scenes act as breaks of levity in-between some of the more turbulent passages as Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham lovingly eviscerate each other about craft and their work.
Yet those passages of emotional turbulence still shimmer with comedic possibility, even if the shifts sometimes get a little abrupt or harsh. There’s the central conflict of Emily’s eventual medically induced coma, but there’s also plenty of material about cultural conflicts and the difficulties of the vagaries of romance and maturity. Not only is Kumail stuck between his family’s Pakistani background and demands, his own comfortable adoption of Americana, but the intrusion and growing relationship that develops between himself and Emily’s parents.
Those parents are brilliantly played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Hunter is the tough but loving southern military daughter while Romano is the more awkward embodiment of dad-humor and prevalent oversharing. The two of them together manage to find a rhythm that feels like a long-term relationship, and the tense intimacy they form with Kumail is an interesting wrinkle in a film that’s full of them. The three of them turn what should be a nearly improbable situation and twist it into something that feels organic and structurally sound. It isn’t just the semi-autobiographical elements at play here, but a deep knowledge that tragedy or chaos makes for strange bedfellows.
The Big Sick finds a sweet spot and works it over for all its worth, which as it turns out, is quite a lot. Not just a crowd-pleasing comedy, not just a charming story of guy-gets-girl, but something richer and deeper even when its tonal shifts are sometimes too jarring, The Big Sick is a wonderful little movie. Perhaps a bit too long, as is just about every other modern comedy, but still packed with truths, laughs, and a pleasing interest in glimpsing the pain underneath the escapism.