I think the biggest success of any movie is it being able to pierce past your own personal knowledge and hang-ups and lose yourself in the actual world of the movie. This is what a lot of “Based on a True Story” movies miss. Even if the story is significant, the significance of that story has to exist within the movie itself, it needs to unfold the same way if you DO know the story as if you DON’T know the story.
The Big Sick is based on a true story that is known largely to a small contingent of massive comedy nerds. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, husband-and-wife alt-comedy darlings, wrote the movie based on their real life romance, wherein Kumail was a young stand-up who fell in love with Emily (Zoe Kazan), but their relationship falls apart when Kumail can’t tell his strict Muslim parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) about their relationship and break their wishes for him to have an arranged marriage.
That clean culture-clash breakup hits a snag when Emily gets terribly sick and has to be put into a medically-induced coma. Kumail is the only one around who can help her, until her parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) show up, tense and angry at Kumail and the only people who can understand what he’s going through.
I’m coming at this movie from an admittedly different place than much of the audience. I mentioned that this story is mostly known to comedy nerds, and I would certainly count myself among that number. I’ve also spent ample time listening to the podcast and video output of Emily and Kumail, and as with anyone you spend an hour or so a week pumping their talking in your ears, you feel like you get to know them.
So, this is a story and a depiction that’s definitely a little closer to my heart and a story that almost can’t hold any surprises. I give all this context to make clear the effectiveness of this movie. I know these people, I know this story, and I still got almost effortlessly wrapped up in every little turn along the path to the destination I already knew.
It’s not hard to attribute a lot of that to Nanjiani and Gordon’s crackling script. Loaded to the brim with raw dialogue and some great jokes (including probably the best 9/11 joke I’ve ever heard), there’s such a wonderful cultural and emotional specificity, drawing off all of these very real experiences. It feels like a singularly-told story in its nuance, the honest fights being relived as well as the triumphs. It doesn’t fall too deep into any cliche depictions, but it does know its genre well enough to navigate what works.
What it also does it give great characters for its actors to latch onto. Kazan may have the most thankless role here (she’s in a coma for most of this movie’s second act), but she does some wonderful work with what she’s got. Shroff and Kher, playing Kumail’s parents, give a lot of careful work to roles that manage to not just feel like villains, but people with their own culturally-ingrained mindset.
Much very due praise has been given to Ray Romano and Holly Hunter in this movie, and I want to echo it. Each find a deep well of sweetness and compassion, the kind of parents you want to root for even beyond the situation they’ve been put in. Both are going to have a lot of attention come awards season and each absolutely deserves it.
But I want to give a little extra space to talking how good Kumail Nanjiani is as a lead here. He’s such a nontraditional romantic lead in a lot of ways, but he sells all those traditional traits, that charm and that wit and that genuine need to grow. He sells the journey so well at both the dramatic and comedic moments, he feels awkward without ever feeling uncomfortable. Nanjiani is just too good, a lead who you root for but never feels like he’s anything less than the persona he’s created.
Of course, that also owes dues to director Michael Showalter. While he’s certainly no technical wizard, his locked down style benefits a movie about conversation and relationships, holding every moment just long enough and cutting things at just the right time. Some weird editing here and there, but his framing of the story is almost flawless, keeping it from ever spiraling too far past its real, raw roots.
Those raw roots in what are clearly some real pains and feelings. Nanjiani and Gordon’s script digs deep into not just bridging the gap between two different cultural expectations, but more deeply into making decisions that you were never expected to make. It’s most potent moments come from those defiances, of turning your back on the only thing your parents wanted for you, or for having feelings you never though you would.
But let it not sound like this is some ponderous indie drama. The Big Sick is a riotously funny movie and one with a deep well of compassion and sweetness. A crowd-pleaser and the sort of unabashedly romantic story that inoculates against easy cynicism.