You can’t blame Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon for thinking that the story of their romance had the makings of a great movie. Kumail (playing himself), a Pakistani immigrant doing stand-up comedy meets graduate student (in psychology, yet), Emily (doe-eyed but tart Zoe Kazan), when she “whoo hoos” him at one of his shows. One thing leads to another and the two lovebirds reach a turning point that might just be an insurmountable obstacle. Kumail’s parents expect their son to marry the Pakistani girl that they choose for him. When Emily finds out about it, and that Kumail has been keeping her a secret from his family, the split. Acrimoniously. And then fate steps in with a vengeance. Emily falls deathly ill, Kumail finds himself at her bedside, with her parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), who know the whole story of how he broke their daughter’s heart, and still manage to bond with him as they all keep vigil over her comatose body, as Kumail realizes exactly what he is losing in all too literal a sense.
Many a great premise has been ruined in the execution, that that is far from the case here. Co-writers Kumail and Emily have transmuted their life story into a sweet and very funny film that is never syrupy, and also, on its own terms, wildly romantic. To start with, they have set it at a time life when Kumail’s double life, dutiful and traditional Pakistani son versus the American guy taking advantage of the opportunities for which his parents uprooted their family and moved to Chicago. Thus it all begins as Kumail’s set is being observed by the talent scout who can change his life, and by Emily, who calls Kumail on his post-performance pick-up spiel with a swift takedown that is as charming as it is lethal. The chemistry is undeniable for these soulmates of snark who fall in love despite themselves, only to find that their feelings are not quite enough to overcome Kumail’s formidable mother (Zenobia Shroffin in a sublime evocation of mother love and cultural expectations), and his own heretofore unaddressed conflicts over wanting to be part of two mutually exclusive worlds.
This is genius. As is the crisp, deadpan repartee between Kumail and Emily that is equally effective when being facetious or honest as they dance around falling in love. As is the way Kumail and Emily the writers refuse to minimize the feelings of wanting what it best for their son by finding him a bride, and the hurt and betrayal they feel when they find out the truth. On the contrary, the bonds that defy culture and reason are amply evident as his father (Anupam Kher) gives him advice on style, or his mother gracefully rises from the family dinner table for the umpteenth time to see who may have dropped in unexpectedly, the someone always being another potential bride armed with her picture and stats summarized in a neat packet ready for Kumail to add to his burgeoning collection.
This is a film that does not shy away from conflict and heartbreak, but it also finds the reason that love is worth going through it all, which brings us to the lightning bolt that is Holly Hunter. Her Beth is a Valkyrie of vicious civility with hair unkempt from worry and barely contained aggression. Where Terry patiently takes notes of what the five doctors involved in his daughter’s care are telling him, and starts to warm up to Kumail’s persistent presence, Beth shoot daggers from her eyes, and the southern accent that mouths courteous words drips with venom.
To say that she is scary is an insult to the concept of scary, but Kumail persists, eventually impressing her with a series of decreasingly awkward interludes that are hilarious in the moment, and touching in their intent. When she melts, the angel’s sing so great is that payoff. Even Terry’s misguided attempt to talk 9/11 with a Muslim, one that goes wrong but is saved by Kumail’s quick wit, works on a dozen levels at once, all perfect. All wickedly funny.
Director Michael Showalter is perceptive, intelligent, and spare in his work here, letting moments find themselves instead of forcing them on an audience. The subtlety is key, from the put-downs showered by stand-up on one another that is actually an odd sort of respect, to the inside joke that Terry is notoriously unfunny, even though Romano is one of the most successful comedians on the planet.
THE BIG SICK may not have the best title of any film this summer, but it is one of this season’s best films. And the year’s. Deceptively insouciant at times, it is also a work of great insight and, of course, romance as it happens in the real world.