The American science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once defended his genre of choice from the claim that “90% of science fiction is crap” by retorting that “90% of everything is crap.” In recent years, it’s sometimes felt like the romantic comedy genre has been trying to go for the full 100%. With each fresh insipid and unfunny title, a new Bridget Jones’s Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral or When Harry Met Sally felt further and further away. What a relief then it is to have that bad run ended by this thoroughly charming Judd Apatow-produced Sundance favourite: The Big Sick is comfortably the best rom-com in years.
Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani essentially plays himself in this loosely autobiographical tale (co-written with Nanjiani’s wife Emily V. Gordon, and directed with journeyman competence by Michael Showalter). When we first meet him, Kumail is a struggling Chicago comedian who makes ends meet as an Uber driver while trying to fend off repeated attempts by his devout Muslim parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, both superb) to set him up in arranged marriage. Unbeknownst to them, their plans hit a snag when he falls for white grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan) after she heckles him at one of his shows.
These early scenes between Nanjiani and Kazan are among the film’s best – the two share an easy chemistry, and their relationship is an entirely convincing one, from their first slightly awkward hook-up onwards. But this is a film that ends up being less about the relationship between its leading couple, so much as between Kumail and two sets of parents – his and Emily’s.
The family dynamic creates two different sets of stresses. Kumail’s reluctance to tell his parents about Emily leads to serious ructions in their relationship. And when a mysterious illness lands Emily in hospital, Kumail finds himself forced to spend a considerable amount of time with her mum and dad (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), neither of whom he’s met before and neither of whom are particularly thrilled to see him.
As played by Kazan, Emily is cute and sparky but Nanjiani and Gordon deftly steer clear of manic pixie dream girl tropes, ensuring Emily remains a layered, well-developed character in her own right rather than just Kumail’s quirky arm candy. Her hospitalisation in The Big Sick‘s second half is therefore something of a gamble by the writers, sidelining as it does one of the film’s best characters. But it’s a gamble that pays off, the arrival of Emily’s parents offering a neat reverse of the situation Kumail faces with his own family: one set of parents knows too little about his relationship, the other too much.
As Emily’s mum Beth, Hunter proves the film’s secret weapon, offering a fierce and feisty performance. Romano’s role is perhaps the less showy one – Terry is quieter and more awkward than his wife, a clumsy speaker with a penchant for terrible jokes – but he hits the right notes, producing a masterclass in low key comedy.
Indeed, low-key comedy is rather the watchword of The Big Sick. Avoiding the gross-out gags and broad-strokes mugging of previous Apatow films (for example, the script mostly steers clear of cliched ‘Muslim terrorist’ gags, although there is one killer 9/11 joke), Nanjiani and Gordon instead mining humour from the gentle everyday awkwardness of human interaction. It’s relatively restrained and deadpan, but consistently very funny.
It feels a touch obvious to compare The Big Sick to Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None, but the two share significant similarities: not just because both have as their main characters ethnic minority Muslims trying to make it in the whitewashed American entertainment industry, but also because of their healthy contempt for stereotypes. Kumail is a droll, likeable and fully rounded character, but even his conservative family are presented as something more than simple negative archetypes – a level of nuance that remains sorely lacking in most Hollywood portrayals of Muslim immigrants.
The Big Sick could perhaps stand to be ten minutes shorter, but all things considered it’s a minor complaint. Deeply personal but not self-indulgent, this sharply written treat is warm, charming and frequently hilarious. The slump is over. The long wait has ended. Here it is folks: the first great romantic comedy of the decade.