Stan-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani plays a somewhat fictionalized version of his real self in the breakout romantic comedy of 2017, The Big Sick, a film with the disheveled, low-key vibe of a personal anecdote, a story you tell to your friends about how you and your partner met. How they, in this case Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon (fictionalized and played by Zoe Kazan here), come across one another at Kumail’s stand-up show in Chicago. When? Sometime after the Pakistani-American Kumail has feigned interest in and given up on numerous potential planned-marriage partners from his parents Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff). And sometime before Emily contracts a life-threatening disease that inadvertently forces Kumail in the hospital, after their break-up no less, to sign her into a medically-induced coma.
When Emily is forced into that coma, the back-half of The Big Sick reorients itself significantly, transforming from shambolic rom-com saunter to a more downcast but also wilder, stormier riot of emotion with the introduction of Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). Emily’s parents are uncertain, routinely fluctuating in their feelings not only toward Kumail – who has in fact recently broken up with Emily because he didn’t tell his parents about their relationship – but toward each other. These two figures introduce an emotional turbulence, a disruptive element to the earlier portions’ relative placidity. Beth and Terry – adeptly played by Holly Hunter, easily the most complex performance in the film, and Ray Romano, expertly emerging from the shroud of sitcom stardom – are by far the sharpest figures in the film. They discharge far knottier tensions than Kumail and, especially, Emily, who I am tempted to suggest is primarily a delivery vessel for her parents. She is defined primarily in relation to them and Kumail rather than as a unique figure with any specific desires all her own.
Still, The Big Sick’s greatest strength and, arguably, its greatest weakness is that it is abnormally generous to all characters involved in the film, maybe a little too generous. On one hand, wonderful though the back-half to The Big Sick is, the generosity the film exhibits toward complicating Beth and Terry also has the misfortune of populating the movie with its best personalities in ostensible side characters. These figures thereby threaten to pull the film apart with digressions that are more fascinating and worthwhile than the relationship between Emily and Kumail, endearing though those figures are.
At the same time, the film’s essential generosity is lovely, in a low-key, woolly way, inhabited by a minor raucousness that is never less than spirited and frequently spiky, even if the questions it asks aren’t as genuinely prickly as the film thinks they are. Sure, it’s the rare film that could both be tighter – less indulgent to its characters’ side interests – and looser – less willing to define narrative through a framework of extreme tragedy when more everyday issues are also at stake. But that also means the film gets to be both tight and loose, which is rare in this day and age. Although I do wish the film was more dangerous – able to truly wound the audience – that obviously isn’t its mantra. Yes, the spillover of this compassion for its characters is an ability to truly handle dissident elements, to escape its comfort-food tonal template where everyone is fundamentally good. But it’s so rare that any film genuinely empathizes with its characters in the first place. Its generosity may not extend to complexity for Kumail and Emily the way it does for the headstrong Beth and the shabby Terry, but you’d never dare consider not spending time with these characters and their scruffy, worn-in, even worn-out, charm. The film stands in stark disobedience to cinematic assumptions that characters should be morally gradated, shoehorned into a sort of ranking of correctness.
All of this is still somewhat imprisoned by its formula, and it doesn’t actually develop as many wrinkles as it seems to think. It’s also never verging on the fringes of anything, which for me is intrinsically detrimental and caps the film off at a certain level, but it’s always comfortable, and often knotty enough within its chosen milieu. Michael Showalter doesn’t actually do anything to speak of visually either, but the refuse of this would-be-off-hand style is a frisky, above-par romantic comedy that transforms into a thoughtful exploration of shared coping between strangers. Other incisions – a relatively thoughtful exploration of interracial romance, a study in the convergences and divergences within immigrant families – spruce up the shaky, often-stagnant indie comedy aesthetic. Plus, the thoughtfully casual attitude toward Kumail’s parents, acknowledging their Pakistani heritage as a cultural factor in their life but not reducing them to that essentialization, is rare in the comedy world of easy-come, easy-go racial stereotyping.
Ultimately, though, The Big Sick’s unkemptness can get in the way as much as it benefits the film. For instance, the stand-up comedy interludes, especially from Kumail’s friends, are increasingly puffy, the casualty of a writer too attached to tenuously-related aspects of his life to submit them to his editor. (Not to mention a mid-2010’s lives-of-stand-up-comedians boon that has generally been more ingratiating, an excuse for bit-parts doled out to writers’ less successful friends, than revelatory). This sort of sympathy gone awry is more deflating than actually endearing. And even when it is good, The Big Sick is still playing up to a template’s potentiality rather than imploding that template. The nicely arrhythmic quality of the dialogue doesn’t exactly challenge the typical rhythms of this form. It’s an enjoyable experience, but not (often) evocative of anything in particular. I wouldn’t dare call it actually disposable – it has too many lightly fascinating little wrinkles to actually fall into proper irrelevance – but it is, for me, merely good rather than inescapably great.