Kumail Nanjiani’s ‘The Big Sick’ is hilarious, heartwarming adaptation of his real-life love story

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"The Big Sick" | Lionsgate
Grade: 4.5/5.0

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Taking a story about family, serious illness and cultural expectations and imbuing it with humor is no easy task. Nevertheless, “The Big Sick” manages to overcome this challenge and keep its audience laughing as viewers are taken through a touching story, one in which the protagonist risks losing his girlfriend and being disowned by his family.

Written by Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley,” “Adventure Time”) and his wife Emily V. Gordon, “The Big Sick” is based on their real-life relationship as Kumail (played by Nanjiani himself) navigates his life once Emily (Zoe Kazan) is put into a medically induced coma after developing an infection.

The movie opens on Kumail and his budding comedy career. He’s already garnering laughs as he cracks a couple jokes about his home country, Pakistan. We are soon introduced to Emily, a graduate student and aspiring therapist who is reluctant to commit to a relationship but finds chemistry with Kumail.

Kumail embraces an awkward, bumbling persona that translates well to the charming deadpan that characterizes much of the film’s humor. He appears almost boyish — carrying a small backpack around everywhere, unsure of how to conduct himself around Emily’s parents at the hospital — which draws the audience in, and we begin rooting for him as someone we love to laugh at but simultaneously all relate to.

Emily’s only awake for roughly a third of the movie before falling ill, yet even by that point, we’ve grown attached to her bubbly, confident character that perfectly complements Kumail’s laid-back attitude and light sarcastic humor. When she is put into a coma, her absence is unmistakably palpable, as Kumail finds no one but Emily’s parents to make sense of the situation with.

On the other front, Kumail struggles with his family, Pakistani immigrants wishing to preserve much of their own culture — namely, arranged marriages. Kumail is caught in the familiar push-and-pull between family obligations and personal desires.

Kumail’s interactions with his family end up being some of the funniest moments in the movie, as we watch family dinners get routinely interrupted to meet Pakistani women scouted by Kumail’s mother as potential brides. We laugh at his family’s persistence and their light jeers toward his comedy career, but for those who are first-generation immigrants, there’s also a sort of delight at simply seeing these issues play out on the big screen.

“The Big Sick” achieves a perfect balance, allowing us to laugh at some of the absurdity but avoiding trivializing the cultural divide experienced by immigrant families. In fact, the film steers clear of the tropes in which these issues and struggles are fixed so easily, instead painting a nuanced, accurate picture of these cultural differences.

Staying faithful to the trademarks of rom-coms and comedies, “The Big Sick” incorporates a slew of pop culture references. As a nod to modern ridesharing culture, for example, Kumail holds a day job as an Uber driver and ends up occasionally shuttling Emily around, a cute and comical visualization of dating in our modern world.

The movie tackles some darker topics as well, depicting implicit and explicit stereotyping against Kumail, such as when 9/11 and ISIS are brought up to him. Other characters stereotype him in both an unassuming and a heckling manner, and though these moments are brief, the movie confronts issues of not only explicit racism, but a more subtle prejudice — less malicious, yet still unmistakable.

Though the film is somewhat predictable and plays host to the occasional cheesy line about love, the story is surrounded by humor, and the scenes never feel too awkward. Above all, “The Big Sick” is simply an enjoyable movie to watch. It’s a film about love, family, bonding with others and finding a career path; it’s touching and heartwarming, yet never too heavy.

Having a whole theater laughing from beginning to end is not only a delightful experience for viewers, but a remarkable achievement for the film. “The Big Sick” manages to unite its audience through both its humor and tender depictions of navigating cultural differences and facing adversity.

Contact Lynn Zhou at [email protected].