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August 2017 | Charlotte Gajek

Writers Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, and director Michael Showalter turn reality into a heartwarming comedy

It sounds like something that could only happen in a movie: Two people fall in love, break up because his family doesn’t approve, she contracts a deadly illness. But in the case of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, that is exactly what happened. Now they have turned the early stages of their relationship into a film, The Big Sick, which premiered to much acclaim at Sundance earlier this year, prompting Amazon to pay $12 million for the distribution rights. Considering both the critical and commercial success of the film, it was money well spent.

Kumail, playing a version of himself, is a stand up comic in Chicago who hasn’t quite made it yet. He performs with his friends at a comedy club, gets laughs, but isn’t necessarily the funniest of the bunch. During the day he works as an Uber driver to pay the bills. He is very close to his family who moved to Chicago from Pakistan, having to build a new life from the ground up. Kumail’s brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) is somewhat of a poster child with a career his parents are proud of and married to a woman they chose for him. That is all Kumail’s mother wants for her second soon, too. Determined to find him a suitable wife, she continues to invite single Pakistani women to dinner, who present Kumail with a headshot and a CV. This happens so many times he has an actual collection of them at home. Kumail is visibly uninterested in an arranged marriage but has neither the heart nor the courage to confess it to his family. It doesn’t even pose much of a problem until one night after a show Kumail meets Emily (Zoe Kazan), a whip-smart psychology student. They hit it off instantly and even though she is initially reluctant to get into a relationship their mutual attraction makes it impossible to stay aware from each other. These early glimpses of the relationship are especially joyful. There is never anything stilted or synthetic about the way they communicate, instead they are just two genuinely funny people having conversations the way anyone would in real life. However, it is all brought to a screeching halt when Emily discovers Kumail’s binder full of women and his stubborn refusal to take Emily’s anger seriously results in a break-up. The next time Kumail hears from, or about, Emily is when he gets a phone call in the middle of the night from a hospital. Emily has been admitted to the ER. Things start to happen fast and before they really have time to have an awkward conversation the doctors need to place her in a medical coma because her vitals won’t improve and they haven’t been able to figure out what’s wrong with her body. Kumail is the one who has to give the permission for the coma to be induced, woefully unprepared and ill suited. He is also the one who has to call Emily’s parents, whom he has never met, and let them know their daughter is now in a coma. As the doctors try to determine what illness Emily is suffering from, Kumail has to awkwardly navigate meeting Emily’s parents Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter), all the while ignoring his own family and the mounting pressure to come clean. 

The cast taking a break behind the scenes.

It’s a warm and funny movie, and the humour never comes from a dark or brutal place, even with fairly risky jokes it is evident there is no underlying malice. It is real humour, the way people use it and joke in everyday conversation. It sets it apart from the usual tone in an Apatow comedy where mainly white guys try to outgross each other, and somebody let the actors improvise too long. Not that the latter isn’t in the Big Sick. Backstage scenes with Kumail, Aidy Briant and Bo Burnham clearly had more leniency about deviation and going off script. It’s noticeable and not entirely necessary but it is never overwrought enough to alienate. 

Kumail, starring in a film for the first time in his career, manages to be endearing without overselling it. There can be a hint of adolescent sullenness and misplaced entitlement, when he fails to understand that people don’t necessarily owe him anything and not everyone is determined to see things his way. It is only in very emotional moments when he has to play opposite Zoe Kazan or Holly Hunter that you realise that his range has certain limitations, but it doesn’t take anything away from the film or his performance. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents have solid chemistry and the unspoken conflict between them, which Romano unveils to Kumail while laying on an air mattress for a sleepover, infuses every interaction between them and even informs the decisions they make about their daughter’s treatment. It helps to establish Emily’s parents as not just a side note or comic relief, but as real people, experiencing many different types of pain, who are just trying to keep it together. Romano as the calmer parent helps to ground Hunter, who is a tiny ball of coiled fury, ready to explode. She does so, in a particularly uncomfortable scene at Kumail’s stand up gig and while there is definitely a comic aspect to it, she manages to inspire a moment of genuine alarm.

Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily's parents.

Even though she is in a coma for much of the movie Zoe Kazan is the one who seems to run away with it. Her Emily is such a funny, warm, challenging person that you cannot help but fall in love with her a little. The character may not have been so bright had someone else played it, but Kazan manages to establish Emily as a real person, giving her a very welcome break from her usual type casting as a manic pixie dream girl. In The Big Sick she is a smart, funny woman who isn’t interested in taking any shit from the lesser grown up side of Kumail, or anyone else. She has little time to leave an impression but boy does she use it.  

The Big Sick is getting hailed as a new kind of romantic comedy and to a certain degree that’s probably true, but it doesn’t feel anything like the kind of movie typically associated with that genre. Mainly because the story makes room for more people than just the two leads, without sacrificing personality and depth on any fronts, it feels very much like a stand-alone film. There are no big, dramatic moments, no declarations of love on top of the Empire State Building. It’s quiet, it’s real, and the film’s ending emphasises this in a warm, understated way. 

 It is worth investigating the journey of the real Kumail and Emily, through articles and interviews. There are certain differences, some minute and others quite drastic, and it can be beneficial to hear how real life truly played out. When the real Emily talks about waking up from her medical coma and explains how bewildering her surroundings were, how anger and confusion informed much of her initial response, it helps to both comprehend Kazan’s performance in those scenes, as well as show how serious the condition and situation actually were. It also helps to hear Nanjiani speak about his real parents, their reaction to finding out about Emily, and their current relationship. While the film shows us a close knit, warm family, the momentary brutality when his parents, especially his mother, cuts him out, feels brutal and while the potential for reconciliation is alluded to, it doesn’t end as hopeful as you would like. Hearing Nanjiani speak about how his mother initially only wanted to know whether Emily was doing alright and only got upset with him after Emily had woken up from her coma, provides a relieving contrast.

All imagery courtesy of Studio Canal

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