There are elements of The Big Sick that it’s going to be impossible for me to be objective about. Thankfully, those elements are such a small mix of the collision of plot threads that make up its story, an autobiographical account of how screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani (who also stars in the film as himself) and Emily V. Gordon met and went through a trial of life and ended up marrying each other. It’s after leaving the theater that I realized that such a seemingly straightforward premise actually had a lot cooking inside of it and it even backloaded most of the best things about it to the second half. So when I say that I can’t help the fact that I’m also a Muslim-raised atheist mostly Americanized who at one point drove Ubers (the very earliest indication that this will mostly be fictionalized, the fact that Nanjiani drives Ubers is an anchor to the rom com element despite the real-life couple being together in the early 2000s) whose still Muslim family insists on arranging a marriage that wants to be involved in some manner in the entertainment industry that has mostly dated white girls*, it’s like… maybe the fourth most important tangent within this movie. Maybe the fifth, I can’t keep track of it all.
But for the first hour at least, it feels front and center to have Nanjiani introduced as two things from the start, a Pakistani American comedian living in Chicago. Early on this look into a comedian’s life segues into a romance Nanjiani has with a heckler named Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) and the two of them are clearly bad at pretending they’re not a couple because before we know it they give up their mutual “we’re not gonna speak to each other anymore” thing and end up spending time together at each other’s apartments before a pretty unsavory part of Nanjiani’s Muslim parents trying to throw him into an arranged marriage upsets Emily enough for the two of them to break up (the biggest diversion from Nanjiani and Gordon’s true-life story and something I can understand interjecting drama into the film but also ends up making Nanjiani look a lot more unsavory than I think the film wants him to be later on).
Shortly after Gardner ends up hospitalized for a lung infection nobody saw coming or knows what’s up and Nanjiani is forced to sign a medically-induced coma order (despite the fact that she’s literally sitting in the next room talking to somebody) before calling over Emily’s parents from North Carolina, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter).
Now, The Big Sick is clearly about a lot of things, which is the beauty of it. Nanjiani, Gordon, and director Michael Showalter have been able to tell Nanjiani’s story by letting all these very distinct strands of his life – his struggles as a comedian, his romance with Emily, his Pakistani-Muslim background – with the same sort of “this is my life” weight and generous charm that makes it hard not to be endeared to every single person that appears in the film and I’m most impressed with the way the three of them let all these strands bleed into each other, especially in the second half where Nanjiani’s attempts to separate all these parts of his life start collapsing and demanding more dramatic momentum. Still, as sure as those three storylines are present in The Big Sick, they don’t captivate me nearly as much as Kumail’s attempts to connect with Emily’s parents does. That Kumail’s first meeting with them has to be during such a trying time (and starting on the wrong foot as they know of Kumail’s ex-boyfriend status) is the most extraordinary circumstance in a film full of extraordinary circumstances and Terry and Beth end up anchoring a lot of the rest of the film from their very first appearance halfway through until pretty close to the end as Kumail has to figure out how to help them find their way through both their fear for their daughter’s life and Chicago itself.
It can’t hurt that Hunter and Romano are clearly the best performances in the whole cast. Romano is nobody’s idea of a great actor, but being the concerned father who might be a pushover is hardly a tough role for him to inhabit and he’s very lived-in with his relationship to Hunter’s on-edge, semi-confrontational mother (a role she can do with her eyes closed). They easily steal the show without showboating away from the conflict of Kumail’s own family concerned for his absence, played by Adeel Akhtar, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, and Shenaz Treasury, nor relegating either side to being just stereotyped caricatures.
If Emily’s lack of presence in this romantic comedy’s second half does bother me (something the movie keeping leaning towards acknowledging and then forgives outright by the end), if the clear anonymity in its aesthetic does as well (especially the editing, where the decisions made seem to be exactly the wrong ones in my eyes… namely shots and angles used where the most obvious ones are staring right in our face), if parts of the story don’t interest me as much as other parts (I haven’t talked about the comedian’s life side because – much as it is well-written – I could have lived without it), I can’t lie to myself and pretend that I didn’t still love The Big Sick in all of its heartfelt messiness. It’s a movie that asks for sympathy from all possible ends, doesn’t fault anyone, has characters that I don’t mind living around for two hours, and it speaks to a side of my life I don’t think is much represented. This is the sort of cool hang-out friend version of a movie where you know everything will be ok in the end and if some people think that doesn’t seem challenging, I can’t disagree but it’s their loss.