How often do you see a genuinely well-written movie? One with recognizable situations matched to plausible, fully developed characters, that’s also entertaining?
For some years, no American movie has met that simple standard.
That is a short-hand way of saying that the new romantic comedy The Big Sick really stands out. It’s also a movie that points up a lot that’s great about our country. On top of all that, it’s based on actual events, and audiences will walk out from it with the pleasure of a happy ending that seems to be real.
This is a feel-good movie — but one produced by Judd Apatow, the man behind raunchy hits like Knocked Up and Girls. That means that the characters aren’t moral exemplars. It means that they swear and sleep around. But, like the film they’re in, they have wit and heart.
Although it was shot over 25 days in New York City, the story is set in Chicago. That’s where Kumail, a young Pakistani-American comic (Kumail Nanjiani), winds up in bed with Emily, a graduate student (Zoe Kazan), who has just heard his stand up act. What she soon learns is that he’s supporting himself through work as an Uber driver, and that he has been receiving taxi calls as they were making love.
This is to be the first of many disconcerting revelations. For Kumail keeps as many secrets as a bigamist CIA operative. Chief among his skeletons in the closet: the fact that his family is determined that he meet and marry a Muslim girl from his homeland. In fact, they have been regularly arranging introductions for him to “acceptable” choices. So, however much chemistry he may have with Emily, he hasn’t been telling his folks anything about her as he knows that if he does he might well be thrown out of the family.
Yet Kumail is very much an American. He doesn’t pray to Allah, and while he has a certain reverence for his home country he understands that it’s not home for him anymore. (That’s with good reason. For while the movie doesn’t dwell on that problematic place, it’s enough to know that it’s a country where the police think that honor killings — murders of young girls by their fathers and uncles for “disgracing the family” — aren’t worth investigating as crimes.)
But Emily has a much more alarming discovery just ahead of her. This is that she’s about to become deathly ill, so sick that her physicians soon determine that they are best advised to put her in a medically-induced coma. That means that Kumail must explain himself to Emily’s parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), a New York-bred math teacher and an Army brat from the rural south, when they arrive in the Windy City to take care of her. This rather heartrending part of the tale is drawn from the actual experiences of Kumail’s real-life wife and co-writr, Emily Gordon.
In the midst of this, big opportunities in the world of comedy start popping up for Kumail. So, amidst all of these conflicts, he has to ask himself not only if he can make it as a stand-up, but if he can stay with the woman he loves and whether she will get out of her coma.
That last part of the story is a reminder of the many reasons why people come to America from all over (including from Pakistan). That most specifically includes the fact that we have the best doctors and hospitals. And Kumail’s ability to connect with Emily’s parents should serve as a memory cue of something else: how inclusive and respectful our nation is, some exceptions notwithstanding. More broadly, the movie demonstrates our ability to do something that’s nearly impossible in many parts of the world: make jokes on uncomfortable subjects. In The Big Sick, this includes everything from 9/11 to promiscuity and problem drinking.
Reportedly, Apatow worked with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon for three years, helping them fine-tune their script. It shows. The movie plainly deviates from the real story in a few melodramatic ways, and it mostly uses its broadly drawn secondary characters for comic relief. But the dialogue is sharp, and the story is affecting.
That emotional wallop is bolstered by the terrific performances of Kazan and Hunter. The first is one of the country’s best young actresses. The second is one of our finest performers of “a certain age.”
The whole is something that’s funny and moving without being precious.