Ah, romantic comedies. No other genre fills people with so much naïve hope and then with eventual heartbreak and realization. They often feel very phony, with two stars with hardly any chemistry both serving up a predictable and safe plot, with hardly an realism or consequence. Sure, films aren’t meant to be completely realistic, but when the human experience is so exaggerated, it’s hard to not find it a bit silly at times. Sometimes real life is just as interesting and complex, and great stories can be told from it.

Based on true events, The Big Sick follows struggling stand-up comedian/Uber driver Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), who emigrated to Chicago from Pakistan as a young boy. His family follows the country’s strict moral values, much to Kumail’s dismay as they try to arrange marriages for him, and try to persuade him from pursuing a career in stand-up. One night, he meets budding therapist Emily (Zoe Kazan), and they strike up a relationship. This all goes downhill when Emily finds out Kumail was never looking for a real relationship, as he’s too afraid his family will disown him for not being with a Pakistani woman. After they break up, things get even worse as Emily gets a deadly infection and falls into a coma. While the doctors at the hospital work tirelessly to save Emily, Kumail bonds with her parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), all while reflecting on his own life situation.

The Big Sick is an interesting romantic comedy because of the story behind it. It’s co-written by the star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, whose relationship the story is based on. I’m sure some things were embellished here and there for an increase of drama, but the best thing about the film is how authentic it feels. Being written by the actual couple it’s starring (with Kazan obviously filling in for Gordon) makes you feel like you’re watching a real human relationship grow.  Nanjiani and Kazan have terrific chemistry with one another, with witty, rapid fire dialogue being exchanged between the two. Just like a real relationship, idiosyncrasies and other aspects of a person come to light, which eventually causes the friction down the line. A big reason romantic films can falter is due to one of the leads not being fully developed, mostly because of the limitations of a screenwriter when it comes to writing the opposite gender. With the female touch of Gordon, every character from the males to females feel like genuine human beings.

After Emily falls into a coma at the start of the second act, Kumail spends a majority of the middle portion with Emily’s parents, both played wonderfully by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. I never thought I’d be saying this, but Romano is actually hilarious here, with great delivery and timing. He perfectly embodies the milquetoast, middle-class American father, to where he’s fully invested and broken up about the situation, but cracks a lame joke whenever he can to lighten the mood. Holly Hunter as his wife is the perfect antithesis, clearly wearing the pants in the relationship, with Romano bending to her every whim. They get annoyed with each other, but it’s also due to these differences why they gel so well together. They represent everything Kumail and Emily could possibly have. The casting here is just perfect, with each character realistically embodied by their actors, their natural chemistry making it feel that much more real.

Director Michael Showalter does an excellent job at representing the emotional state of the characters, particularly in a sequence where Kumail breaks down about his feelings on Emily, all intercut with close-up shots of her in the hospital bed. You’re moved by his monologue where his true feelings are revealed, but these shots to an unconscious Emily really accentuates the pain and regret he’s experiencing. The sound design is a little distracting at times, such as whenever our characters learn a new development about Emily’s condition, a high-pitched hum takes over the entire soundtrack. It’s a good way to represent how the characters are processing the information, but it’s mostly used to create a couple minutes of tension before it’s quickly relieved. The thing is, you don’t need these little manipulations for suspense, as the story and characters are engrossing enough.

The story isn’t really about Kumail and Emily’s relationship, though. It’s really about Kumail breaking the shackles of his Pakistani culture and fully embracing the American one he’s been wanting to live. A lot of the Pakistani culture is played for laughs, such as his mother’s constant dinner “auditions”, where young Pakistani women happen to “drop in” whenever Kumail is around for dinner. While there are a lot of jokes made at the expense of Pakistani culture, there’s always a serious undercurrent, as it still causes Kumail to internally struggle. It’s sad to see that his parents can’t just put their culture aside and care about the feelings of their son, only seeing disrespect and dishonor from him. It almost feels like Nanjiani was using this comedy as a cathartic release of all of the frustrations he felt all of those years.

There’s a lot of comedy to be found, but it feels like a real-life comedy in how it’s surrounded by all this darkness. The Big Sick basically being an autobiographical film about Nanjiani’s struggle with cultural identity and his bizarre romance with Gordon is the main reason why the film is so great. It’s just filled with honesty, heart, laughs, and characters who feel like real people going through a huge life event together. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and maybe do both at the same time: just like in real life.


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