Kumail Nanjiani has become an emerging presence on the comedy scene over the past couple of years. He’s had stand-up comedy specials, a show on Comedy Central, a number of supporting roles in studio comedies, and a leading role on the HBO show Silicon Valley. Nanjiani has also found success in his personal life with his wife and frequent collaborator Emily V. Gordon. The story of how the aspiring comedian and Pakistani immigrant found his comedic voice and the love of his life in the midst of various aspects of turmoil is the subject of the new film written by Nanjiani and Gordon and directed by The State alum Michael Showalter, The Big Sick. At the midway point of 2017, The Big Sick stands as of the year’s best movies, a comedy that hits on multiple cultural and personal topics without ever falling short in the laughs department. Simply put, The Big Sick is an all-around comedic triumph.
Nanjiani stars as a somewhat fictional version of himself. He’s struggling to make it in the world of comedy and spends his nights driving for Uber to make money. Kumail shares an apartment with Chris (Kurt Braunohler), who is struggling more than his roommate. The young comedian is a man stuck between two cultures, having immigrated to America in his teens. Once a week, Kumail goes to his parents’ home in the suburbs where his mother (Zenobia Shroff) and father (Anupam Kher) never hide the fact that they’d prefer it if their son were to abandon his life in comedy in favor of a career in law or medicine. Wanting to carry on tradition of arranged marriage, every meal is interrupted with a different young Pakistani woman who just “happens to be in the neighborhood.”
One night after one of his shows, he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) and the two hit it off immediately, going back to Kumail’s apartment for what would be a one-night stand. But that supposed one-night stand turns into an ongoing relationship, though Emily’s academic obligations have her questioning whether or not she should be in a relationship. The good fortune of Kumail’s romantic life isn’t shared with his family, and the cultural differences prevent him from introducing his girlfriend to his family. When Emily discovers Kumail’s cigar box full of pictures of would-be Pakistani brides, it creates a rift in their relationship that leads to a break up. Things get more complicated when Kumail learns that Emily is in the hospital with an unknown illness and her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) shortly fly into town to care for their ill daughter who has been placed in a medically induced coma. There’s all sorts of tension swirling around these people as Emily’s condition is in a constant state of flux and the ex-boyfriend comedian must contend with trying to maintain his comedy aspirations while tending to the needs of his ex-girlfriend’s parents and the demands of his own parents.
There are a lot of thoughts and topics on the mind of The Big Sick and it’s really a testament to the screenplay by Nanjiani and Gordon and the direction of Showalter that it’s able to consistently hit every mark it aims for and still be consistently hilarious. On one hand, there’s a romantic and medical drama. On the other, a drama about cultural assimilation and family. And yet even when the film has its characters in the depths of despair, fearing the unknown of the medical condition afflicting Emily, there’s always a well-timed joke to cut the tension. There’s a deft, delicate balance between comedy and drama on display in The Big Sick, one that never loses sight of its story or characters as it tugs on the heartstrings and makes you laugh simultaneously.
The film’s central relationship between Kumail and Emily is brought to vivid life by the dynamic created by Nanjiani and his co-star Zoe Kazan. You can feel the warmth of their whirlwind romance and the chill of their short-lived falling out. There’s not a bad performance in The Big Sick, and the supporting cast is given ample time to shine. Holly Hunter is a firecracker as Emily’s mother and Ray Romano gives perhaps the best performance of his career as Emily’s father. It’s not just the seasoned American actors who steal the spotlight, Zenobia Shroff is astounding as Kumail’s mother and is excellent in moments that call for impeccable comedic timing as well as moments of maternal heartbreak and disappointment. Adeel Akhtar is also fantastic as Naveed, Kumail’s brother. The brilliance of the written screenplay and Showalter’s assured direction anchor The Big Sick, but it’s the diverse cast that brings the remarkable material to life.
There may not be another movie this year that so effortlessly blends comedy and drama with strong themes of cultural identity as The Big Sick. This is a truly impressive piece of work that should further boost the star of Kumail Nanjiani, and hopefully provide him more opportunities as a leading man. The Big Sick boasts a perfect cast delivering perfect work. Movies like The Big Sick don’t come around that often. It’s rare that a movie can warm the heart, break the heart, teach you about different cultures, and keep you laughing from start to finish. The Big Sick is special and should not be missed.