Comedians Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon grapple with love, family expectations and other afflictions in ‘The Big Sick’

August 18, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 18, 2017

Director Michael Showalter’s new dramatic comedy, The Big Sick, is the appealing real-life meet-cute story of Uber driver–cum–comedian/actor Kumail Nanjiani and graduate student–cum–comedy writer/producer Emily V. Gordon.

The story, co-written by Nanjiani and Gordon themselves, begins at a comedy show in Chicago, where Kumail (playing himself) mock-seriously lectures psychology graduate student Emily (Zoe Kazan) for heckling him during his set. The two say they’re not looking for anything serious, but their physical attraction is supplemented by a personal affection that develops between the pair, and soon they’re seeing each other multiple times a week.

Unfortunately, Kumail isn’t ready for commitment, partly because he’s focused on winning a slot at a comedy festival in Montreal, but also because his very traditional Pakistani parents and brother expect him to have an arranged marriage, just like they did. While the family is openly skeptical of Kumail’s comedic dabbling — they’d prefer that he apply to law school — they flat-out declare that they’ll disown him if he doesn’t marry a Muslim woman.

Kumail tries to keep his family life separate from his budding romance, in part by having a “rule” that bars him from seeing his almost-but-not-quite-girlfriend more than two consecutive days. Upon her discovery that his Sunday evenings have been devoted to family dinners at which his mother regularly arranges for potential brides to “drop in,” an enraged Emily ends the relationship once and for all.

Things might have ended there but for a quirk of fate. Out of the blue, a friend of Emily’s frantically calls Kumail late one night, hours before a final exam, asking him to join Emily in the emergency room. When he drives to the hospital, he finds a grievously ill woman fighting off a mysterious infection. At a doctor’s urgent request, he signs a form (posing as Emily’s husband) authorizing the staff to put the patient in a medically induced coma that physicians think will help her heal.

Much of what follows is awkward for everyone involved — except for Emily, of course, who’s comatose. Kumail meets Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who know about Kumail’s double life and shabby treatment of their daughter. While they try to determine why Emily is so ill and why every effort the doctors make to cure her seems to end in futility, Beth and Terry also grapple with the fallout from a marital indiscretion.

Meanwhile, Kumail struggles with whether he owes anything to a woman about whom he has conflicting feelings; he also learns how to build a relationship with a couple — who culturally mismatched in their own right — who are skeptical of his commitment to Emily. At the same time, the comedian wrestles with decisions that could leave him permanently cut off from his own relatives.

There isn’t a huge amount of suspense in the outcome: Anyone who’s listened to Emily and Kumail discuss the movie in one of their numerous promotional interviews knows that she survived the disease and that the couple ultimately got married. But the reward is in the journey, as the ensemble gives a poignant sense of being well-meaning but flawed people who are doing their best to engage with real challenges while attempting to retain their wits, grace and dignity.

The Big Sick isn’t a gut-buster of a comedy, although it does have its laugh lines. Similarly, it’s a modest, albeit charming, drama. It will be interesting to see what future collaborations might come of the couple at its heart.

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