The dog days of summer are a good time to catch up on the season’s counterprogramming, the movies that somehow found an audience while competing against superhero sequels, commercial juggernauts, and the deserved success of Dunkirk. This year, the best of the rest has the worst possible title: It’s The Big Sick, a romantic comedy that escapes that genre’s present exhaustion by the novel method of putting its leading lady in a coma.
That lady is Emily (Zoe Kazan), a Chicago grad student who becomes an object of affection for Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), the son of Pakistani immigrants who’s disappointing his parents by pursuing a career in stand-up comedy while driving for Uber to pay the bills. They meet after she offers a friendly heckle during one of his stand-up performances and have a cute young-broke-urbanite courtship that ends, abruptly, when she discovers a cigar box filled with headshots of young Pakistani ladies in his apartment. What we already know, and what she discovers, is that Kumail’s parents (and particularly his steely mother, played in a great if underwritten turn by Zenobia Shroff) expect him to marry a woman who is both South Asian and Muslim, and while he’s rebelling against them he isn’t ready to imagine actually marrying outside his tribe.
No sooner has Emily dumped him, though, than she is suddenly hospitalized, and for under-explained reasons her friends order Kumail to her bedside just as she disappears into an induced coma, while the hospital staff struggle to figure out what’s wrong. At which point her parents, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, show up, and suddenly the meet-cute comedy about escaping parental rules and pressure turns into a somewhat more old-fashioned story in which, to win his ex-girlfriend back, Kumail first has to woo her parents.
This setup might feel a little over-engineered, but it’s easier to accept if you know that (in some form) it really happened. The movie’s joint screenwriters are Nanjiani himself and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, the movie-Emily’s real-life counterpart, and the coma-romance is basically how they ended up together — which helps explain why the movie has an agreeably human, lived-in quality that doesn’t require too much stretching from the cast.
Nanjiani, known mostly for being a put-upon ethnic straight man on Silicon Valley, is well matched with Kazan, not least because they both have faces that are pretty/handsome about one-third of the time. He is also well matched with Romano, who wears his famous sitcom and stand-up past lightly (and also wears a beard); their characters, the anxious sort-of boyfriend and the fretful dad, are basically different comedian-types, each turning inappropriately to jokes during the crisis but in styles that clash before they mesh. And then Romano and Hunter together are even better still: The movie gives them an implicit backstory like their daughter’s with Kumail — they’re a mixed North-South marriage, with her twang and his hangdog outer-borough look, dealing with a betrayal he committed, and their scenes together are some of the best in the film.
What’s not good about the movie is its length, rooted in the obvious desire of its personally invested writers to shoehorn in all kinds of extra business they find fun — which means we have long interludes with Kumail and his friends at the comedy club, which play like middling outtakes from Judd Apatow’s Funny People (Apatow is a Big Sick producer), plus a subplot about Kumail’s one-man show about growing up Pakistani that never pays off, plus one too many mini-endings on the way to the (effective) very end.
I also have some sympathy for one of the left-wing #hottakes offered online about the film — a piece noting that Kumail’s whole immigrant-in-love arc effectively promotes the idea that the essence of Americanization is secularization, that the good assimilated Muslim isn’t just the one who might watch horror movies and do stand-up and marry a white girl, but also the one who doesn’t pray anymore (we watch Kumail pretending to pray to appease his folks, and in the end boldly confessing his agnosticism) or take any of his religion’s moral precepts seriously. There is no sense of what an assimilated and believing American Muslim might look like — a fairly important question in the West these days — and I did find myself, at times, wishing that the movie had allowed Kumail’s parents to be a bit more than stereotypes, a bit more like the fuller characters inhabited by Hunter and Romano, and had made their appeals to traditions more interesting and less rote.
But it asks a lot of a shaggy romantic comedy to also wrestle effectively with the deepest questions of religion, identity, and modernity. I am reviewing The Big Sick after its summer of relative success, so the tendency is to nitpick and note its weaknesses. The basic truth is that this is a good movie, flaws and all, with a story of love and anxiety in everyday life that — after so much summer bluster — the moviegoer can enter and relax into with relief.