It’s been said that comedy is a natural response to tragedy; indeed, humour is proven to speed recovery.[none]Patch Adams can still fuck off, though.[/note]
Even so, taking perhaps the worst period of your life and turning it into a romcom, that most disposable of genres, is certainly a bold move.
In The Big Sick – which he co-wrote with his wife Emily V. Gordon – comedian Kumail Nanjiani stars as a fictionalised version of himself circa around 2007 (though the film itself takes place in the present day).
Living in Chicago and working as an Uber driver (one such fabricated element), Kumail hopes to become a stand-up comic; as we know he must. One night at a gig, Kumail is heckled – well, whooped at – by Emily (Zoe Kazan), with whom he quickly forms a bond.
As opening acts (of movies) go, The Big Sick is well-sketched if somewhat familiar stuff. Nanjiani’s varyingly talented comedian buddies – including the upsettingly mediocre Chris (Kurt Braunohler)1 – recall the work of Judd Apatow, who serves here as producer. Nanjiani and Kazan’s chemistry quickly wins us over. She’s sparky but unwilling to commit, but is won over by his drollness and self-deprecation.
However, there is, as there always must be in a romcom, one big obstacle: Kumail’s family. His parents may have got over his decision not to become a lawyer – itself a comedown from being a doctor – but they remain committed to an arranged marriage for him – or as they call it in Pakistan, as Kumail points out, “marriage”. Potential wives of various degrees of charm or unsuitability are always “popping in” for dinner and his devoted but traditionalist mother (Zenobia Shroff) especially would disown him were she to learn that this future for him were off the table.
What could be a straightforward comedy about a culture clash is exacerbated by Kumail’s failure to tell Emily about his family situation. The situation becomes that much more fraught when, in short order, she a) learns the truth for herself, b) angrily breaks up with Kumail, and c) falls suddenly ill and is put into a medically induced coma, but not before telling her parents about her ex’s deception.
As such, it’s understandable that her high-strung mum Beth (Holly Hunter) is crabby, bordering on hostile, about his presence in the hospital waiting room. Contrastingly, Emily’s noncommittal dad, Terry (Ray Romano) is brusque, if not quite unsympathetic, but clearly just wishes Kumail would go. But Kumail – having just watched Emily being wheeled through the hospital, freaking out and crying – does not go.
He’s there with them in the bereavement room with its motivational posters and Zen fountain – it’s the only room available for a conversation – listening to the overwhelming babble of a multitude of doctors. While the obligatory their-growing-to-love-him verges on the soppy, its redeemed by a few inspired scenes; like one where Beth goes feral on a heckler or a self-loathing Terry reveals to Kumail his own regrets.
Kumail himself is hugely likeable but deeply flawed. For one thing, he’s an habitual liar, but, much as it makes things easier, he can’t go on pretending to pray in the basement of his parent’s house (or doing terrible one-man shows about Pakistani culture and cricket, where he uses diagrams to demonstrate the exact position of silly mid on).
Soft on the outside but hard in the centre, once you get past the culture clash and the romantic stuff, The Big Sick becomes a well-rounded story about honesty and forgiveness. We know the outcome (the film’s very existence is premised on it), but The Big Sick makes us care about the difficulty – and laugh a fair bit during it, too.
If you have no time for romcoms, this won’t exactly cure what ails you, but it may just help you build up a tolerance.