The Big Sick by director and comedian Michael Showalter is a culture-clash rom-com set in Chicago that’s genuinely moving and funny – what’s more, it’s based on a real-life love story.
In Sickness and in Healthby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani stars as himself in a rom-com about meeting his future wife Emily (played by Zoe Kazan). The excellent, snappily paced screenplay is co-written by them. His characterisation endearingly hang-dog and self-depracating, he plays himself as a not-very-good stand-up; she starts off slightly manic pixie dream girl but her character develops and morphs into something much stronger.
Their chemistry when they meet at a comedy club where Nanjiani is performing is instant and joyous, and so convincing that you can’t imagine either of them with anyone else. The snag is that he’s from a Pakistani immigrant family of professionals, and he’s expected to have a proper career and an arranged marriage with a suitable Pakistani woman – a succession of eligible females invited by his mother (Zenobia Shroff) just “drop by” at family dinners. A relationship with a white woman would mean losing his family and when he tells Emily the truth, they break up.
But when Emily is hospitalised with a life-threatening mystery illness, he meets her parents for the first time at her bedside. Galumphing maths teacher Terry (Ray Romano, Kevin Can Wait) and feisty Southerner Beth (a remarkable turn by Holly Hunter). At first they’re hostile, but when they realise Kumail still loves Emily, they start to warm to him as they keep a vigil together and even watch his act at the comedy club – where Beth unexpectedly causes a fight and pandemonium.
The twists and turns of Emily’s recovery, Kumail’s career and his relationships with both sets of parents and with Emily is incredibly touching. The fact that these are true makes unlikely events believable and adds to their power. The chemistry between Nanjiani and Kazan is so good that it’s hard to believe that they’re not the actual couple but the witty screenplay, which zings along packed with one-liners, also serves to show the shared humour that that brought the real couple together.
It’s comedian Michael Showalter’s third feature as director. His light touch makes for a really enjoyable film, even for those who don’t like rom-coms. It deals love, death, faith, country, family, friendship and career in a way that’s never sentimental, though I defy you to get to the end without shedding a tear.
Picture courtesy of Sundance Institute.