Faced with something as seemingly mundane as the thumbprint identification system on a smartphone, not many big-screen comedies will find the potential for a dark visual gag. Actually, few would spot any comic potential whatsoever. Not The Big Sick. Full of sharp observations that acknowledge everything from the most respectful way to unlock a coma patient’s phone to the viral possibilities of a disastrous comedy gig, Kumail Nanjiani’s (Silicon Valley) Judd Apatow-produced star vehicle couldn’t be more deliciously 2017. From the outset, this sparky culture-clashing romcom has a modern edge.
From the outset, this sparky culture-clashing romcom has a modern edge.
It’s easy to see why it stood out at Sundance this year (and convinced Amazon Studios to broker a $12 million distribution deal). The story sits close to the real-life courtship of its co-writers, Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon. After she launches into a flirty bit of heckling at one of his shows, Pakistani-American stand-up and Uber driver Kumail (Nanjiani) begins a passionate relationship with trainee psychiatrist Emily (Kazan). He does, however, withhold that his family are in the process of finding him a nice Muslim bride, through a series of excruciating auditions at the family dinner table.
Ultimately, Kumail’s reluctance to own up to his parents about Emily tears the couple apart. But when she contracts a serious virus and he’s the only one available to sign off on a medically induced coma, her parents arrive (Ray Romano’s sweetly dopey dad, alongside Holly Hunter’s snarling terrier of a matriarch) and the stage is set for a blackly comic tale of love, honesty and sterile hospital waiting rooms.
It’s a dynamite premise — with hand-squeezing tension courtesy of Emily’s precarious status and awkward laughs through Kumail’s nervy interaction with her parents — but the execution is just as impressive.
The script fizzes with droll, dirty wit (“Were you available for rides while we were fucking?” asks Emily after her and Kumail’s first hook-up), Nanjiani is an engaging leading man while Kazan works wonders with a character who spends a large part of the film hooked up to a respirator, and director Michael Showalter gives the early hospital scenes an effective, kinetic chaos.
What’s more, despite the regular thrum of tension-breaking gags, it never pulls big emotional punches and, commendably, doesn’t offer easy answers to the thorny questions of religion, tradition and family loyalty. Kumail’s clan — bolstered by the hilarious Adeel Akhtar as his older brother — are never sold out as the villains, and even one of his prospective brides gets a multifaceted bit of characterisation.
Not all of it works — the backstage scenes with Kumail and fellow comics played by Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant betray a bit of improvisational bagginess — but this is a fearlessly funny achievement. And the ending — which manages to be satisfying without glibly ignoring what keeps plenty of couples apart — is perfectly pitched.