Few movie genres are more difficult to pull off than the romantic comedy. Although America’s seemingly insatiable desire for rom-coms ensures Hollywood will keep making more every year, the vast majority are not funny, not romantic, predictable, clichéd and sweet enough to rot your teeth. Films that can both move viewers’ hearts and make them laugh are a rare delight. Movies that also manage to add intelligence to the mix seem like an endangered species.
Putting the Person in the Politician
The Big Sick manages to pull off that unusual trifecta by telling a story that’s rooted in real life, rather than a screenwriter’s flight of fancy. Co-written by real-life married couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick hilariously explores the very bumpy roots of their relationship. Nanjiani (Silicon Valley, Portlandia) plays himself when he was just getting started as a comedian in Chicago. As the film begins, he is living with a roommate, playing short sets at a local comedy club and supporting himself as an Uber driver. Kumail frequently visits his tight-knit Pakistani-American family, where his mother (Zenobia Shroff) always arranges for a single Pakistani-American woman to “accidentally” stop by after dinner. His highly traditional parents want Kumail to accept an arranged marriage and give up this crazy idea of being a comedian, but he is determined to stick to his dreams, both romantic and professional.
While the future of his career remains fuzzy, Kumail’s personal life takes a turn for the better when he is heckled by Emily (Zoe Kazan) during a performance and they end up spending the night together. Their one-night-stand soon blossoms into a relationship that successfully navigates the many challenges of modern love. But his parents’ oft-spoken threat to throw Kumail out of the family if he becomes involved with an American girl hangs heavily over their future. When Emily suddenly becomes ill, her parents travel up from North Carolina and Kumail finds himself facing a different kind of prejudice.
Nanjiani, Gordon and director Michael Showalter pack a lot into their modest tale, in particular about the unsettling challenges of being a Muslim-American in post-9/11 America, but always keep Kumail and Emily’s love story at the film’s core, never losing the pleasurably fizzy quality that is essential in a good romantic comedy.
Though this is clearly Nanjiani and Gordon’s film, Showalter’s influence is strongly felt. Like his previous film, Hello, My Name is Doris, this story’s essential sweetness is tempered by a strong emotional honesty that keeps it from becoming overly saccharine. Although The Big Sick is too airy of a confection to dig deeply into each character, the fine writing and excellent cast weave them into fully rounded human beings, and that humanity allows us to understand their fears and prejudices, as well as their joys and passions. The Big Sick demonstrates that real life can be just as romantic as any fantasy, and pretty damn funny too.