“Do you ever just want to be in a relationship, just so you can relax?”
Let’s get the elephant in the room a cozy chair, right away. The Big Sick is a personal, true story from its star Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley); the main events detailed in the movie happened to Nanijiani and his then girlfriend, Emily V. Gordon. But for the sake of this review, that’s merely trivia. Plenty of semi-autobiographical films fall into indulgence. A lack of distance when telling one’s own story makes it hard to decide how to present the narrative, which pertinent events to catalogue, and what themes to explore. But for the most part, Sick fires on all the right cylinders, connecting with the viewer on a deeply emotional level and sweetly reminding us that the best medicine is laughter.
Kumail (Nanjiani, as a version of himself), a thirty-something Uber driver/stand-up comedian, is content to charm his way through life, whether at weekly dinners/marriage auditions with his traditional Pakistani family, on stage in front of his competitive comedian buddies, or into the pants of random one-night stands. One night he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan), and everything else in his life takes a backseat — especially when she falls ill, and Kumail finds himself forming familial bonds with her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) while neglecting his own.
Sick starts off as a typical paint-by-numbers romantic comedy, albeit among the best of the genre (think When Harry Met Sally or Notting Hill); however, as the plot unfolds and the narrative focus, it becomes something special. Emily’s sickness causes Kumail’s carefully crafted world of avoidance to crumbles around him, and we find ourselves in James L. Brooks territory. The surprise is that this isn’t Kumail and Emily’s love story at all, but about Kumail wooing Emily’s parents, Terry and Beth Gordon. And that, Dear Reader, makes it wholly original.
The script begins efficiently, establishing that the main couple love for each other is never in doubt; it’s just truth. As in life, they cannot really understand why, just that they do, and although I agree with the script’s intention to define love by not exactly explaining it at all, it both works and fails — more on that in a moment. The jokes are effortlessly delivered by the supporting cast. Generously, Nanjiani gives the best one-liners to nearly everyone else. As is often the case with Judd Apatow productions, however, that looseness creates a drag at the end. Every scene is necessary, but at just shy of two hours, the final product could have used some tightening.
Director Michael Showalter, a fine comedic actor in his own right, carefully crafts this treatise on relationships with naturalistic, non-showy staging. The auteur here is Nanjiani, and Showalter (who also directed 2015’s brilliant Hello, My Name is Doris) lets the script speak for itself, focusing on pulling great performances from each performer, no matter the size of the role. Standouts include Holly Hunter as the multifaceted Beth, and it’s Hunter’s finest performance in years. Romano – never a favorite of mine – injects so much heart into Terry that I longed to have him as my dad or best friend. It is impossible, as always, to resist girl-next-door Zoe Kazan; there is no choice but to love Emily because we so love Kazan’s version of the grounded pixie dreamgirl. Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant basically play themselves, but adequately so. The finest work comes from Adeel Akhtar as Naveed, Kumail’s more traditional brother, who steals every scene he’s in. Less effective is Zeppo character Chris (Kurt Braunohler), Kumail’s roommate and fellow comic, intended for the Rogen/Galifianakis role but is mostly insufferable.
The only real sour note, as painful as it is to admit, comes from Nanjiani himself. That’s not to say he’s terrible, just okay. But in a film with such fine work from his colleagues, Nanjiani’s unpolished style sticks out. He’s comfortable on a stage, or when his character is expressing feelings the real Kumail clearly felt. But in the script’s best scene, when Kumail finally makes a choice to be brave, Nanjiani’s stringing performance weighs it down. It’s not all bad news, though. No one is impervious to Kumail’s charms; when he does let his guard down as a character and as a performer, the real tears come.
Further, Kumail as written comes off as extremely unlikable for nearly the entirety of the first act. Why – if not for the movie telling us so, and Kazan fully committing and therefore convincing us – would anyone fall for such a cowardly jerk? He’s a liar, plain and simple, and his dishonesty comes from deeply rooted selfishness in avoiding making any real decisions about his life, for as long as he can sustain it. Because of Nanjiani’s charisma, and Emily’s unwavering love for him, we go along as he digs further into his deception. Only when he has lost everything does Kumail finally reveal to the audience the man the real Emily V. Gordon must love deeply.
As a producer, Judd Apatow excels most at identifying rare and innovative talent, predominantly exceptional storytellers: Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, and Nanjiani/Gordon. These artists have their own perspective and voice, but they share a knack for self-deprecation, which makes them relatable. It’s not hard to feel Apatow’s influence in Sick, which is punctuated with small moments, especially involving family dynamics, that don’t feel scripted at all.
Like the best of the genre, The Big Sick doesn’t seek to make a statement about “modern” relationships, but is interested only in presenting this particular love story. And though not many of us can boast its fairytale conclusion or the trial with which this couple is faced, the feelings are real. And that makes the world of difference. I take pleasure in listing Sick among the year’s best films, held aloft by a strong story, phenomenally written characters, and a message of hope. These times could use some hope.