Based on his experiences as a first generation Pakistani man living in the U.S., Kumail Nanjiani and his girlfriend, Emily V. Gordon’s script for The Big Sick is a charming bit of writing that makes a complicated issue feel breezy and light. It’s a bit of easy-to-swallow conflict in the hostile Trump era of de facto suspicion about immigrants. Director/writer/comedian/actor Michael Showalter helms the production with a rather innocuous touch that lightens a story laden in layers much more complex than the love story on its surface.
Based on the actual experiences that brought him and his girlfriend together, Nanjiani plays a Chicago Uber driver with a bad one man show about his immigrant experience and aspirations to be a comedian. His easy-going charm is enough to make grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan) smitten after he hits on her with some pretty looking Urdu on a cocktail napkin. Soon after a one-night-stand and a few coy promises to never see each other again, they find time to date. But there are red flags on his part. Instead of expressing his affection honestly, he tells her, “I’m overwhelmed by you.” It’s a preemptively defensive act, as he harbors a secret. His parents (Anupam Kher playing a husband who goes along with some rather funny but diabolical scheming by his wife played by Zenobia Shroff) want to arrange his marriage with whatever Pakistani young woman his mother stumbles upon. Though Kumail is never impressed, he passively entertains his parents so much so that he keeps Emily a secret from his family.
The web of lies of omission build to a moment where Emily dumps Kumail before she falls ill and is hospitalized in a medically induced coma. At the hospital, Kumail meets the American girl’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). They already know about him. After all, she cared enough to tell them about the relationship … from start to finish. They are not warm to his presence at the hospital at all. There’s more conflict, but it all feels so sweet and conceptual. Of course the Americans and the Pakistani end up warming up during some funny scenes of fish-out-of-water conflict (there’s a great Sept. 11 joke that seems to cut the tension). Yet everything works out over quaint bonding experiences as Kumail constantly wears an easy charm that wins over the parents.
Rounding out Kumail’s character, there’s a subplot that allows him to express his honest feelings among fellow struggling stand up comics at a bar where the regularly perform. But nothing ever feels hugely at stake. The film glides along on its brightly colored pathos, as you feel a sense that everything will turn out OK in the end. The saddest story among these characters can be found in the stagnation of Kumail’s roommate, Chris (Kurt Braunohler) who uses the same routine over and over on stage. He watches Kumail grow from the couch of their apartment. And when Kumail and two other comedians decide to head off on a trip for bigger things in New York, Chris is simply not invited.
There is something to be said about the Pakistani immigrant experience in the film and how tradition and assimilation clash with their new country. As much as it seems to be about how Americans respond to outsiders, the film is really quite forgiving in that regard. It’s mostly about the outsider experience and finding the difficult point of balance between traditions and coping with new culture. Kumail’s brother, Naveed (Adeel Akhtar), who is happy in his arranged marriage, criticizes him for being too Western. It deals with details of compromising for expectations of parents and the world they have decided to raise their children in. Yet, still, if Mom doesn’t seem to be talking to Kumail over his decisions, gestures arise that will calm the audience’s nerves to assure that everything will be OK.
The pressures of family on both sides is well-defined but often compromised with gestures that de-fang the drama. The writers also never forget a sense of the weight of guilt that allows Kumail to bond with his unconscious girlfriend. However, without conscious transference, the relationship seems rather suspect. A girlfriend in a coma not only has no prejudice, she can’t argue back. She has no role in defining the relationship except as an inanimate object. It builds to some conflict at the end, but there are too many notes that strain to keep up the film’s feel-good quality that again blunt the drama. In the end, The Big Sick cops out with a rather innocuous quality that weakens a bigger message about how prejudice goes both ways, as the filmmakers tread with a light touch that seems more concerned with emotionally buoying the audience than asking them to reflect on their own feelings of cultural mixing.
The Big Sick runs 119 minutes and is rated R. It opens in South Florida at several multiplexes on Friday, July 7. For screening details in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website. Amazon Studios invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.