Our families play a big part in shaping who we are — our spiritual beliefs, our values, the way we understand the world. As we grow, and our worldviews change, the way we were raised and the way we now are don’t always match up. Communicating those differences to the families who care for us can be hard, but they’re necessary for us to be honest about who we are with the people we care the most about.
This idea is the kernel of truth at the center of the new romantic comedy The Big Sick, a sweet and thoughtful movie from husband-and-wife writing team Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, and director Michael Showalter. The film, based on Nanjiani and Gordon’s real-life courtship, tackles love, identity, and the conflicts they can sometimes cause.
Kumail (Nanjiani, playing himself) is an aspiring stand-up comic in Chicago, with a loving but strict Pakistani Muslim family. He meets Emily (Zoe Kazan), a graduate student, at a standup show. They start dating, but break up after Kumail’s fear of rejection by his family for dating a non-Pakistani woman keeps him from fully committing to the relationship. Shortly after they split, Emily comes down with a strange illness, and is put in a medically induced coma. While visiting her at the hospital, Kumail meets Emily’s parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). Their connection causes Kumail to rethink the way he feels about Emily, and be honest with his parents about the woman he loves.
The realness of the film’s story and warmth of its performances make the film a pleasant change from the lightly structured improv that often hinders contemporary comedy. Romano and Hunter are kind and believable as Emily’s mother and father. Kumail’s parents, Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, help give a great, layered portrayal of a Muslim family that genuinely want the best for their son, but whose ideas of what that is clash with the person he’s becoming.
But really, the best performance in the film belongs to Nanjiani —no surprise, since it’s partly his own story. The affection he feels for his parents makes him afraid to upset them, but to really come into his own as a person, and as a comedian, he has to be honest with them about what he wants for his life.
For much of the film, this conflict manifests as a kind of passivity, and lack of a creative identity. Kumail pretends to pray before meals, and lets his mother invite a string of eligible Pakistani women to family dinners. Though he has no interest in dating these women, he still keeps their provided photos in a box in his apartment, unsure of what to do with them.
Kumail’s noncommittal state impacts his creative life, too. One of the movie’s running gags is Kumail’s abysmal one-man show, in which he rattles off facts about Pakistani history, sports, and culture, to the boredom of his audience, and avoids talking about anything personal. Asking Emily what she thought of the show after a performance, she tells him “I felt like I didn’t learn anything about you.” It’s only after Emily’s hospitalization, and Kumail’s decision to commit to her, that he starts to develop a real voice.
The Big Sick is a comedy with real meat and meaning, something that’s been lacking from the genre in recent years. It provides cultural diversity that avoids stereotypes, and explores cultural and generational difference in a way that’s honest, non-judgmental, and opens doors for conversation. We need more relatable stories like this — hopefully the movie’s success means that we’ll get them.