Romantic comedies, when done right, achieve the best of both categories. Their laughter isn’t cheap or hollow because it relies on depth of character and place. And the romance isn’t saccharine because it’s peppered with sincere wit. The Big Sick belongs in the ranks of When Harry Met Sally and 10 Things I Hate About You.
Kumail Nanjiani (of Silicon Valley fame) plays an Uber driver and mediocre stand up comic who emigrated from Pakistan as a child. We first meet Kumail ferrying passengers around Chicago, glancing back at them through his rearview mirror. Director Michael Showalter presents Kumail as thoughtful, more modest than his fellow comedians, sharp but never cruel in his wit.
Kumail meets Emily, a wisecracking and ambitious student played by Zoe Kazan, at one of his shows. A series of dating scenes, not rushed or contrived, depicts the natural and authentic progression of their relationship. Kumail and Emily banter and joke and face the significant trial of pooping at the other’s apartment.
But of course, obstacles arise, both predictably and by surprise. Kumail’s family is the former; they expect him to marry a Pakistani woman and follow the traditions of Islam, even though Kumail hasn’t practiced in years. Strategic humor mitigates the mounting tension between the family’s expectations and Kumail’s feelings for Emily. In a hilarious sequence, Kumail’s mother arranges for single women to casually “drop in” during family dinners as Kumail shrinks in embarrassment. The Big Sick shines in the moments where it examines cultural pressure in modern America. At the risk of making a trite comparison, the cultural rift between younger and older generations grounds itself in the tradition of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None (Ansari’s character in the show is the son of Indian immigrants).
However, Kumail and Emily soon face an even more urgent problem, one that won’t be solved by extravagant declarations of love and commitment. The Big Sick navigates the clichés of its genre—forbidden romance and medical crises—by not quite eschewing them, but presenting them sincerely and thoughtfully.
The seamless humor throughout the film is based in the imperfections of the characters. They tell bad jokes and laugh at them. They are impulsive and irrational, and their motivations––of rebellion, or preserving convention, or proving themselves––feel relatable. The success of The Big Stick lies in the film’s embrace of these flaws.
Nanjiani and Kazan both carry the quirky and delightful scenes as well as the painful ones. They grin throughout the first half of the movie and grimace for most of the second half, and it all works. Ray Romano makes a formidable dad–joke deliverer, while Kumail’s fellow comedian friends Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham are ruthlessly sarcastic but genuinely kind.
The Big Sick is based on Nanjiani’s relationship with his real–life wife, Emily Gordon. The couple co–wrote the screenplay together, which is perhaps to credit for the sincerity of the film.
Veteran comedic director Michael Showalter (his previous works include Wet Hot American Summer and The Daily Show) maintained a steady pace (the film runs just about two hours) and straightforward narrative. Showalter expertly balanced the film’s humor with its serious personal dilemmas, keeping the elements at enough distance to not tarnish either.
The Big Stick maintains many conventions of its genre, but has situated itself as the highest standard for modern romantic comedy. The modernity isn’t an inauthentic grasp at a trend. The film doesn’t mention Uber or Siri or the successful Chicago Cubs just to show us that it’s hip to the times. The Big Stick is a modern take on the films that have come before it—generous and sweet on its surface, but with a new examination of culture, religion, parenthood, and loyalty.
The Big Sick, released June 23, is in theaters everywhere.