'The Big Sick' Proves That an Original Rom-com Is Not an Oxymoron

'The Big Sick' is an intelligent film that offers a blend of real-life material and genre conventions

Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail and Zoe Kazan as Emily in 'The Big Sick.'
Nicole Rivelli / Lev Cinemas

Judd Apatow, who directed and produced such movies as “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” produced “The Big Sick,” and Michael Showalter directed it. But if there is one dominant figure to whom this movie belongs, it is 39-year-old comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani, who was born in Karachi, Pakistan and came to the United States to go to college. Nanjiani not only wrote the screenplay for “The Big Sick” together with his wife, Emily V. Gordon (who must have contributed no less to the result), but stars in the movie as himself, and the story is based on his own experiences.

Yes, with “The Big Sick” the current American trend of turning personal experiences into movies has entered the realm of the romantic comedy, and at first glance, at least, this seems a surprising development. I can’t remember another romantic comedy based on a true story. (An Israeli comedy playing currently at local cinemas, “And Then She Arrived,” directed by Roee Florentin, is supposedly based on something that happened to screenwriter Shai Lahav; I have yet to see it.)

What makes the combination surprising is that, like the musical, the rom-com is an essentially artificial genre, whose plot explores the ideological circumstances under which a man and a woman can become a couple. More than any other genre, romantic comedies are formulaic – not a flaw, in this case – and you would think that basing a romantic comedy on a real-life event would require diverging from the familiar formulas that most rom-com directors have put to sophisticated use. Reality, after all, is not formulaic. So a filmmaker who wishes to turn a true story into a romantic comedy has one of two options: to bend historical truth to the rules of the genre, or to bend the rules of the genre to reality. And both sides of the equation may be diminished as a result.

In “The Big Sick,” Nanjiani and Gordon manage to do neither, or perhaps both; the result, therefore, is quite an original romantic comedy at a time when good offerings in this genre have become increasingly rare. The movie follows certain rom-com conventions – a meeting, initial hostility, falling in love, a crisis, a breakup, and so on – but reality has tied these familiar plot elements to a central event that is not organic to the genre, and which Nanjiani and Gordon (and Showalter; I don’t mean to diminish his contribution) skillfully weave into the well-known formula.

Gifted comedian

As actually happened in real life, Kumail does comedy routines at New York clubs while also working as a driver for Uber. When Emily (Zoe Kazan) comes to one of his shows and annoys him with a comment she makes, he responds rather aggressively; but Emily, who has a pleasant demeanor, does not overreact.

The two meet again, go to bed, fall in love; but then they run into a problem. Kumail’s parents are determined to arrange his marriage to a Pakistani woman, and they present him with a long list of amiable candidates. He therefore keeps his relationship with a white woman a secret from them; if they find out, he may be ostracized. When Emily discovers all this, she breaks up with him: She is angry and hurt at how passive he has been about revealing their relationship to his family, and unwilling to be responsible for a falling-out between him and the people he loves.

And this is where the unusual event enters the story, and before I get attacked for the spoiler, I should say that the trailer of “The Big Sick” reveals that Emily goes through a health crisis. Even though they have broken up, and because Kumail still loves Emily and feels guilty that he let her go without a fight, and perhaps ashamed of his weakness before his family, he naturally rushes to her bedside, where he meets her parents.

The main part of the plot follows the bond Kumail forms with Emily’s parents, who at first treat him with suspicion – not because he is Pakistani, but because he broke their daughter’s heart. Eventually, however, they develop a closeness that is not cloying or sentimental (and doesn’t need to be). This part of the movie benefits from the precise, excellent performances of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano – it’s good to see them both again – as the parents.

Nanjiani’s gifts as a comedian are evident in the dialogue, the best part of “The Big Sick” and also the finest writing we have heard in a romantic comedy in a long time. The lines keep the movie going even when the plot stumbles, especially toward the end; but even then, there is an abundance of comic moments to make up for it. Nanjiani has the screen presence of an anti-movie hero. At times he seems about to be swallowed up by the film, because his character is passive; but that doesn’t happen. His delivery of his lines is perfect, and his low-key, somewhat oblivious manner contributes to his portrayal of his relationship with Emily, her parents and his own family, the three circles of connection around which the movie revolves.

“The Big Sick” is an intelligent film that offers a wise blend of real-life material and genre conventions. It also tries to explore the clash between tradition and progress and to convey a message of tolerance – in one scene Emily’s mother, while attending Kumail’s show, attacks a member of the audience for yelling an anti-Muslim slur, and the event devolves into a public fight – but these are the less significant aspects of the movie. What matters most in “The Big Sick” is the human connection formed between its different characters, who create the sense of a multicultural community in the making, where all you need is love.