A girlfriend in a coma tends to inspire more Smiths' songs than it does laugh-out-loud comedies. But “The Big Sick” takes such dramatic and autobiographical subject matter and turns it into one of the funniest, sweetest films of the year.
The real-life couple of actor-comedian Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) and writer Emily V. Gordon (“Super You”) wrote “The Big Sick” together based on their courtship in Chicago. Reading and listening to interviews with them, it’s almost shocking how much of their real lives finds its way into the movie.
Nanjiani plays a version of his younger self, an up-and-coming stand-up comedian trying to figure out his act and his life. He has a hilariously terrible one-man show about his Pakistani heritage that devolves into detailed digressions on the rules of cricket and Pakistan’s chief exports. After one show, Kumail meets Emily (named Emily Gardner in the movie, and played by Zoe Kazan), a University of Chicago student who wants to be a therapist. They have a one-night stand, then a two-night stand, then fall into a relationship together.
The relationship between Nanjiani and Kazan is the heart of the movie, capturing both the exhilaration and terror of allowing a new person to get close. A lesser romantic comedy might have relegated Emily’s role to that of “quirky love interest,” but the film makes her just as funny, charming and messed up as Kumail. They seem good together. We want them to work out, but the film makes their relationship just real enough to suggest it might not.
The big sticking point is that Kumail’s parents insist on finding him a nice Muslim girl to wed in an arranged marriage. (“Or, as we call it in Pakistan, ‘marriage,’” Kumail says in his standup act.) Kumail pays lip service to his family’s traditions, politely sitting through his parents’ “appointments” with potential matches, pretending to pray to Mecca five times a day. And he doesn’t dare tell his parents he’s dating Emily, a non-Muslim.
Kumail’s dishonesty and dissembling lead to a big blow-up with Emily, and they all but break up. But then Kumail gets a phone call — Emily is in the hospital with some sort of mystery lung ailment, and the doctors pressure Kumail to sign off on putting her into a medically induced coma while they figure out what’s going on.
Once unsure whether he wanted to acknowledge his relationship with Emily, Kumail now finds himself making life-or-death medical decisions on her behalf. Things are complicated when Emily’s parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) show up, and they’re very aware of how poorly Kumail treated their daughter.
Kazan makes such a vivid impression in the first half of the movie that you acutely feel her absence when Emily lapses into a coma, and we yearn along with the characters to wake and restore the film’s balance. There’s a lovely, sad scene in which Kumail and her parents go back to her apartment, each sweater in the closet or book on the shelf triggering a fond memory of her.
Romano and Hunter are terrific, bringing the same depth of feeling and detail as a longtime married couple that Nanjiani and Kazan do as a new couple. Hunter’s Beth is a steely-eyed spitfire (her dressing down of a racist heckler at one of Kumail’s shows is a thing of beauty), while Romano’s Terry is a go-along, get-along guy, the sort of dad who comments on the quality of the local tap water or extols the virtues of “Forrest Gump.” They’re a riot, and watching as they warm to Kumail, creating a sort of ad-hoc, waiting-room family as they worry together about Emily, is poignant.
Director Michael Showalter (“Hello, My Name is Doris”) avoids the sort of big moments, either comedic or dramatic, that might feel false. Instead, he gives “The Big Sick” an inviting, generous tone that allows room for both funny running gags and moments of painful honesty.
Because Nanjiani and Gordon wrote the movie, we know where things are going and whether Emily will wake up. But frankly, we know where most movies are going. It’s how it gets there, and the company we get to keep along the way, that makes “The Big Sick” such a winner.