When a couple goes through a harrowing experience together, usually you’d expect to find Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay on the line, repackaging trauma as some kind of high-concept disaster film. For The Big Sick, it was Judd Apatow.
Apatow - whose directing credits include Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Trainwreck - doesn’t immediately jump out as the go-to name to produce such a story, and yet watching with full-knowledge of the surprising warmth contained in films like those listed above, this fit seems just about perfect. It’s also the best thing with his name attached since Bridesmaids.
Loosely based on the true story of its central couple, The Big Sick focuses on Kumail (played by Kumail Nanjiani himself, the film’s co-writer) - a Pakistani-American stand-up comic - and Emily (Zoe Kazan) - initially his heckler in the audience - whose contentious interracial relationship is curtailed when Emily is struck by a rare disease and, eventually, a medically-induced coma. Sticking around to visit Emily at the hospital - guiltily, having failed to reveal her existence to his strict parents - Kumail finds himself bonding in shared grief with her parents, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. Meanwhile, Kumail’s parents continue setting him up with successive Muslim girls who just happen to ‘drop by’ their home for dinner, oblivious to the fact he’s smitten with a white, non-Muslim woman.
It’s a deceptively grim tale for rom-com territory (or, if you like, comedy-drama - which is basically just comedy), that, in the telling, might disguise just how very, very funny and heart-warming Nanjiani and Gordon (the film’s real-life inspiration)’s script really is. It’s also refreshingly transgressive, skipping over the more obvious romantic formalities, and, by the second act, purposefully diverting from those expectations even further.
Despite some jokes - and even the film itself - running a tad longer than they should (two things now so common they’re basically trademarks of post-Apatow improv comedy), there’s an infectious confidence flowing throughout which makes The Big Sick never less than a pleasure to watch. That begins with the sparkling, charismatic central turns from Nanjiani and Kazan, as well as her on-screen parents Romano and Hunter - whose erratic, no-nonsense mother character feels ultimately true, carrying with her Romano as the film’s surprise stand-out.
There’s also something quietly exciting about watching a romantic comedy with such reverence for the Curtises and Ephrons - and even Apatows - that dares resolve one of their most frustrating quirks: abundant whiteness. It’s not simply an aesthetic choice, either - the film’s fundamental conflict is one of tradition, specifically 1400-year-old Muslim and Pakistani tradition, and how Kumail might reconcile his life as an immigrant with a possible life with Emily. It’s also a film about an outsider, who, despite some success on-stage, can’t quite enter into a positive relationship with his conservative family or - at least initially - a surrogate family in the form of Emily’s parents (whose only starting point seems to be “So…9/11.”)
If The Big Sick feels like a pointed response to the homogenous rut of mid-budget rom-coms flooding cinemas every year, that’s because it is, and it asks why people of colour can’t be Hugh Grant for once. All in all, there’s something super-thrilling about seeing two brown guys re-enact the batting cage scenes from When Harry Met Sally.
There’s also some fun irony in watching this story unfold, because despite being the possibly the most perfect, serendipitous material necessary for a romantic comedy (think While You Were Sleeping), The Big Sick actually contradicts its genre trappings in some unexpected ways. Plenty of times the film turns in such a way as to prompt the feeling of ‘Oh, yeah, of course that would happen. That’s what would happen.’ No doubt, Nanjiani and Gordon were inspired by what came before, but underneath the well-meaning throwback is a riveting, self-aware spin on the rom-com that speaks to its indie credentials.
Though its multiple endings might have you reaching for your coat three or four times too many, The Big Sick is prescribed uplift, a remarkably solid comedy coming seemingly from nowhere and settling right into the canon of the decade’s funniest. And it just might be enough to rouse this catatonic genre from a coma of its own.
Book your ticket to The Big Sick here.