On paper, The Big Sick sounds like the standard kind of rom-com that's been made countless times before. Guy meets girl, sparks fly, only for roadblocks to get in the path of true romance... yep, we all know how that story goes. Not only that, but given the film depicts star and writer Kumail Nanjiani's real-life courtship with his co-scribe and now-wife Emily V. Gordon, we actually know how this specific story ends as well. Still, there's plenty to like about the sweet, sincere and heart-swelling details and detours that this emotionally insightful gem offers up along the way.
When we first meet Kumail, he's a standup comic slogging it out in Chicago. Fame remains a distant dream, as does making a living out of comedy, but at least his set strikes a chord with grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan). While neither of them are really looking for love, their one-night-stand soon becomes something more. There are one or two complicating factors, however. For starters, he can't bring himself to tell her that his Pakistani parents expect him to have an arranged marriage, any more than he can bring himself to tell them he's fallen for an American. But that's just a minor speed bump compared to the mysterious condition that renders Emily comatose for much of the movie's second and third acts.
The Big Sick isn't being poetic or ironic with its title, even if a heady dash of romance can feel a bit like an illness. Instead, it's an accurate description of the film, which largely revolves around Emily's sickness, and the uneasy dynamic between Kumail and her parents (the always excellent Holly Hunter, and a surprisingly great Ray Romano). That it manages to make a thoughtful and earnest rom-com out of some of the worst experiences a person can go through is a testament to the movie's success. Life is chaotic, bodies fail, relationships are hard, and this film does't shy away from any of it.
Truth be told, the further that Nanjiani and Gordon's script gets into the tumultuous early days of their romance, the messier and more surprising everything becomes. Crucially, director Michael Showalter (one of the creative forces behind Wet Hot American Summer) manages to layer cultural, generational and interpersonal clashes with dating banter, medical drama, family tensions and twenty-something existential dilemmas. In his hands, a film that could have come across like a Judd Apatow-produced version of '90s Sandra Bullock vehicle While You Were Sleeping instead proves a textured, multifaceted example of rom-coms at their very best.
It's also worth giving The Big Sick credit for getting the best out of its leading lady, even while she spends much of the film's running time in a coma. Though Emily's illness stems from reality, it still could have easily felt like a cheap ploy – a way to keep the focus on the male protagonist. Yet that's never the case here, in large part because Kazan makes such a lasting impression when her character is conscious. This may be Nanjiani's life story, but his performance wouldn't feel nearly so honest — or the movie so authentic — without Kazan making sure we're all as enamoured with Emily as he is.