When we first meet Kumail (“Silicon Valley’s” Kumail Nanjiani) he is an aspiring comic and Uber driver with a traditional Muslim family who wants him to settle down and give up stand up. He strings them along, agreeing to dinners with women his mother (Zenobia Shroff) chooses for him—“Be a good Muslim and marry a Pakistani girl,” she says—while pretending to be a dutiful son, but his passion is comedy.
One night, at an open mic in a small club, an audience member interrupts his show. Later he confronts her at the bar. “You shouldn’t heckle comics,” he says. “I didn’t heckle, I woo-hooed,” says Emily (Zoe Kazan) and the flirting begins.
What begins as a casual fling—“I’m not really dating right now,” she says. “School and work. A lot on my plate.”—soon turns serious as they both admit they are overwhelmed by one another. Still, he is reluctant to meet her parents and disappears once a week for dinners with his family and his mother’s meet-and-greets with prospective wives.
Kumail loves Emily but can’t find the way to tell his parents he is dating someone outside their faith. When Emily discovers this she asks, “Can you imagine a world where we end up together?” Unsatisfied with his namby-pamby answer, she breaks up with him.
Months later he’s woken from a deep sleep. He’s told Emily is in the hospital and needs someone to stay with her. She has a massive infection in lungs, needs to be put in a medically induced coma and until her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) arrive, Kumail has to make some difficult decisions.
Calling “The Big Sick” a rom com doesn’t do it justice. It is much more than that.
There are no major revelations here, just a carefully balanced look at the immigrant experience—“ The rules don’t make sense to me,” Kumail says to his parents. “Why did you bring me here if you didn’t want me to have an American life?”—ambition, family and the nature of true love. It’s funny, but not laugh-a-minute funny, just comfortably charming as it navigates the cultural and medical landmines in Kumail and Emily’s path.
It works so well because of the chemistry between the leads. Kumail and Emily do the heavy lifting for the first half until she becomes ill. They spark in the most natural and sweetest of ways as their relationship goes from casual to serious, from good to bad.
The second half explores the chemistry between Kumail and Beth and Terry. What begins as a contentious relationship—“You don’t need to commit to anything here,” snarls Beth. “You didn’t while she was awake and you don’t have to now.”—to heartfelt and loving. Hunter and Romano bring considerable warmth as well as honest humour, finding a balance between the drama of the situation and the rom com elements.
Even when “The Big Sick” is making jokes about terrorism and the “X-Files” it is all heart, a crowd-pleaser that still feels personal and intimate.