In Sickness and in Health
In “The Big Sick,” stand-up jokester Kumail Nanjiani describes acceptable professions for a Pakistani-American. Unsurprisingly, doctor and engineer top the list, with comedian at the very bottom — even below Islamic State recruit.
To hear Nanjiani (known to many as the acerbic programmer on TV’s “Silicon Valley”) as a character named Kumail Nanjiani in this semi-autobiographical comedy is to bob to the rhythms of a high-stakes tennis match. The comedian has the soft-spoken delivery and spring-loaded aim that makes almost everything he says sound funny. Yet when Nanjiani goes silent, drawing attention to eyes resembling those in a Picasso self-portrait, he makes visible the melancholy behind the humor.
He is one of the many pleasures of the movie, an irresistibly anxious comedy inspired by the interfaith, interracial courtship between the Nanjiani on the screen, an Uber driver and aspiring funnyman, and his love interest, grad student Emily V. Gordon. (Zoe Kazan, the elfin actress of the wide eyes and wider smile, plays Emily.)
In real life, Nanjiani and Gordon are a married couple who wrote the script for “The Big Sick.” Their on-screen counterparts meet at a comedy club when she responds approvingly to his set, and he in turn playfully demands that she stop heckling him.
Directed by Michael Showalter, himself a comedian and maker of the 2015 Sally Field comedy “My Name is Doris,” this film is strong on performances if indifferent to the technical elements — for instance, framing and editing — that make a movie cinematic. The film has a freshness that comes from the specificity of its characters and the way each navigates the universal hurdle of meeting the other’s parents.
After the requisite romantic montage and mutual confessions of love, Emily mentions that her mother and father are coming to town, and does Kumail want to have dinner with them?
What the audience knows—and Emily does not—is that his family expects Kumail to marry a Pakistani Muslim. At the weekly Sunday dinner with Nanjiani clan, Kumail’s mother (Zenobia Shroff), who has an adorably crooked smile and a will of iron, always “just happens” to have a prospective candidate stop in. (One of them, Khadija, played by Vella Lovell, is so sharp, beautiful and funny that you half expect Kumail to drop Emily like a hot samosa.)
Knowing that if he meets Emily’s parents, she will expect to meet his, Kumail attempts to resolve his crisis by telling her his family knows nothing about his relationship with Emily, and that if he has to choose between Emily and family, he’ll go with Mom and Dad. Emily had foreseen a future with Kumail, and so she walks out, while he continues to pretend to live up to the expectations of his parents.
And that should be that. But a few weeks later when Emily has a medical crisis, her roommate loops Kamail back into her world—and her family fold.
Enter Emily’s parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, possessors of the two greatest voices in the business. Their relationship in “The Big Sick” is as overcast as the one between the elder Nanjianis is cloudless. Beth Gordon wants nothing to do with Kumail, and for his own reasons, her husband Terry is less dismissive.
The final act goes deeper than one might suspect. “The Big Sick” turns out to be more than a boy-meets-girl tale. The story that announces itself as an interfaith, interracial romance turns out to be an intergenerational — and healing — one as well.