People tell writers to write what they know, and that’s exactly what Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani have done with a screenplay chronicling how they met, fell in love, and withstood unique and unusual obstacles to turn their romance into a marriage. How their romance rebounded is the story of “The Big Sick” and the movie is strengthened by its authenticity: Kumail Nunjiani stars as himself to show you just how everything happened.
Kumail is a struggling Chicago stand-up comedian who works as an Uber driver by day. One night while performing stand-up, he hears an audience member noisily cheer him. Kumail’s momentarily thrown by the enthusiastic outburst, or could it be he’s thrown by the pretty club patron who’s voiced her approval? Using the outburst as an excuse to cutely reprimand her, Kumail learns the pretty patron’s name is Emily (Zoe Kazan). Attracted to her, Kumail playfully chastises Emily: her outburst, though positive, was ‘heckling.’ Emily cleverly counters: would he still be insulted if she screamed he was “amazing in bed”? After getting to know each other a little better, the segue is set for a one-night stand.
Because they’re written by the actual participants, the scenes between Kumail and Emily have a natural ease; we see they have a good rapport and mutual attraction. After their night together, Emily tries to dissuade Kumail from future dates- she’s not looking for a relationship. Kumail, undeterred, uses his wit, humor, and persistence to make her rescind. While Kumail and Emily do begin to have a budding romance, their race to ‘happily-ever-after’ is about to encounter two major hurdles.
As dictated by his culture, Kumail’s relationship with Emily is taboo: Kumail’s Pakistani and he’s slated to have an arranged marriage to a nice Muslim girl (his mother continually introduces Kumail to prospective candidates at routine family dinners). Kumail fends off any future intended: unlike his parents and brother, Kumail wants to avoid an arrangement he views as an antiquated ritual. Knowing the penalty for his refusal to wed will be ostracism from his family, Kumail keeps his relationship with Emily a secret. When Emily finds out, she breaks up with Kumail.
After Emily succumbs to an infection and is rushed to the hospital, Kumail goes to the ER as he’s the only person available. When Emily is forced into a medically-induced coma while doctors try to get a handle on the trauma afflicting her, Kumail finds himself in a myriad of unenviable positions: can he juggle his fledgling stand-up career, keep fooling his family, and be there for Emily- the girl he loves and has lied to- while supporting Emily’s worried parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) as they deal with their daughter’s dilemma?
On paper, “The Big Sick” sounds like a bizarre blending of the cultural comedy “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” with Sandra Bullock’s comatose comedy “While You Were Sleeping,” but it’s better than that. In a lot of ways, you might label “The Big Sick” a dramedy (a word I hate because it sounds like a disease itself) but to give you a better picture, “The Big Sick” will remind you a lot of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” While both are smart and depict a real-life comic’s love affair gone awry, the two films differ: Allen chose humor as the dominant over the dramatic, “The Big Sick” does the opposite- showing the humor inherent in the drama. This inherent humor is the métier of “Sick’s” producer Judd Apatow (as seen in his films “Funny People” and “This is 40”) and he has a history of strongly showcasing a lesser-known comic’s talents. Just as Apatow showcased Seth Rogen in “Knocked Up,” Steve Carell in “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” and Amy Shumer in “Trainwreck,” he showcases Nanjiani in producing “The Big Sick.” With Nanjiani’s real-life romance as the template, “Sick” has all of Apatow’s know-how combined with the spirit of “Annie Hall,” using the similar structure of pairing its central love story with humorous nuances of scenes between family and friends.
Of course, credit for the credibility of “Sick” lies with writers Gordon and Nunjiani (who really lived it) and with Nanjiani in starring in the story of his life, but credit’s also due director Michael Showalter (“The Baxter,” “Hello, My Name is Doris”) for surrounding Nanjiani with a nice supporting cast to compliment him- particularly Kazan as Emily and Romano and Hunter as her parents. In its pacing and actors’ rapport, Showalter allows “Sick’s” realistic ease to make the film’s two-hour running time fly.
So if you’re feeling blah, say AH- “The Big Sick’s” as close as you’ll come to seeing another “Annie Hall.”