Everyone has dating nightmare stories, but Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s might just trump them all. ‘Girlfriend in a coma’ might sound like the start of a song by The Smiths, but it is the autobiographical basis for the clever rom-com, THE BIG SICK.
Kumail, playing a version of himself, is a Chicago stand-up comedian trying to break through into the big time. After meeting Emily (Zoe Kazan) at a gig, the pair begin to date. However, Kumail’s traditional Pakistani Muslim family continues to arrange marriage dates for him, something he is unable to tell Emily about. Just as his warring worlds come to a head, Emily falls into a coma. So begins an awkward relationship between Kumail and Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).
Apart from the strange-but-true premise, what immediately separates THE BIG SICK from the romantic comedy pack is its authenticity. From the opening moments of the film, during Nanjiani’s stand-up routine about Pakistan, everything has a ring of truth about it. Surrounding himself with actual comedians, including Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham, the conversations between him and Kazan in the club are reportedly verbatim for Nanjiani’s first words with Gordon. Likewise, their biggest fight of the film is a gut-punch because of its realness.
As the film makes a tonal shift following Emily’s illness, the comedy comes from unexpected but equally genuine sources. Hunter and Romano are adept at awkwardly letting their emotions out at inappropriate times, from frat boy fights in comedy clubs to disarmingly hilarious riffs on 9/11. Likewise, Kumail’s fictional parents – including Anupam Kher in his 500th screen role – never fall into caricature, and have their own devastating monologues before the film is done. As for Nanjiani and Kazan, the only thing that stops them from being the screen’s most adorable couple is that they have the real-life Nanjiani and Gordon to measure up to.
If you have gone through a process of long-term illness or grief, you’ll know that the process is neither linear or completely serious all of the time. THE BIG SICK finds the balance between reality and fiction, playing up scenarios where appropriate and subverting genre tropes in others. Given the subject matter, we sincerely hope there isn’t a sequel for these characters, but they are nevertheless folks would enjoy spending a little more time with.