I don’t know how someone puts his life story on film, playing himself without a trace of self-consciousness…yet that’s what comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani has done in this disarming film, which he and his wife Emily V. Gordon wrote together. I suppose it’s a logical step once a performer has learned that the best comedy is rooted in truth. Still, it’s a big step to expose oneself emotionally as he does here.
The Big Sick is about a rookie stand-up comic from a traditional Pakistani family now living in Chicago. When he falls for a bright young woman (Zoë Kazan) who isn’t Muslim he skates onto thin ice, then realizes he’s not willing to sacrifice the love of his family to cement his relationship with her. In fact, they’ve broken up when a phone call summons him to a local hospital, where she is desperately ill.
The balance of the film explores how he deals with her illness—and her parents (wonderfully played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), while struggling to move his career forward and keep his own parents at bay.
There are many intersecting storylines, yet director Michael Showalter keeps everything on track. Nothing seems contrived to push the narrative forward or create a comedy set-piece.
What a treat it is to watch Holly Hunter. She has an inimitable spark, in both serious and humorous scenes, and as always she is unfailingly real. Ray Romano is a great match for her, even though his character’s personality is notably different. They make a great couple.
Kazan is always good, although her screen time is limited here. That leaves Nanjiani to carry much of the film, which he does well. He’s quietly funny and engaging. He hides his pain and uses comedy to mask his feelings as best he can.
Nanjiani and his wife have taken pains to explain that this is not a documentary. Not every character or incident in their screenplay is real, but everything they depict is honest, and that matters more. The Big Sick is bracingly funny, heartrending, and intelligent, a perfect alternative to the pirates, mummies, and other creatures inhabiting multiplexes this summer. No wonder it was the runaway hit of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.