“Can we have an awkward hug before we part ways forever?”
Repeat after me: “Michael Showalter is the greatest comedic filmmaker alive.”
Felt good, right? That statement’s been true for a long time now. Showalter’s been making people laugh since first appearing on MTV’s sketch show The State in the late ’90s. His writing and acting have lent a quirky sensibility to dozens of films and TV shows in the years since. He’s also served as director on many of those projects. His work behind the camera – most notably the charming rom-com The Baxter (2005) and last year’s criminally under seen Hello My Name Is Doris – has proven Showalter can make people laugh on both sides of the camera. The Big Sick is about to become his calling card.
That’s saying a lot because – at its core – The Big Sick is a fairly standard romantic comedy. You know the drill … boy meets girl, the pair have a few too-cute laughs, they fall in love, some hard times test their resolve, but they overcome all obstacles and end up happily ever after. That’s The Big Sick in a nutshell. No, that last bit is not a spoiler. The film was written by Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and his real-life wife Emily V. Gordon. It’s the story of how they fell in love.
Turns out it’s whopper of a tale. The Big Sick sees Nanjiani taking center stage and playing a semi-fictional version of himself. His casual, deadpan wit are front and center even in The Big Sick‘s opening moments. The details of his upbringing in Pakistan and subsequent move to America earn a few big laughs and set up the story to follow in an endearingly economical way. We pick up with Nanjiani as an adult living in Chicago. He’s working as an Uber driver. He’s struggling to make his way on Chicago’s stand up comedy scene. And his fiercely traditional Pakistani parents are desperate to arrange his marriage. Then one night after a gig he meets the charming, quick-witted Emily (Zoe Kazan), and the rest as they say is history.
But things weren’t quite that easy for Kumail and Emily. They spend some time trying not to date. They fail. For a time, love reigns supreme. Laughs come with a cool, easy grace. You can always tell when actors like each other. Nanjiani and Kazan breeze through the first throws of romance section of The Big Sick with the natural chemistry that only shows when actors are completely at ease around each other. That makes it all the more powerful when trouble hits. Kumail’s inability to tell his parents he’s fallen for an American girl – and subsequent lying to Emily about it – abruptly ends the romance. It’s only by the grace of the titular affliction that the Kumail and Emily find their way back to one another.
Only when they do, Emily is in a coma. Kazan spends a big section of The Big Sick‘s middle passage off screen. This would usually be the part in a romantic comedy where the male lead struggles to be a better person so he can truly earn the love of his leading lady. The story would usually come to a grinding halt in the process. Make no mistake, that stuff happens in The Big Sick. Nanjiani does some growing up. Yes, he eventually has it out with his parents. That stuff is sort of required in a story like this. It’s the other stuff that happens in the middle that sets the film apart from any rom-com you’ve seen.
With Emily in the hospital, her parents (played to perfection by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) show up to take charge of her care. They know all about Kumail’s betrayal. They are not happy to see him. And so, an entirely new rom-com takes fashion. One where Kumail unwittingly wins the love of Emily’s parents. Just so happens that bit of the story is as lovely and tender and laugh-out-loud funny as the rest. The film’s biggest laugh (and there are a lot of them) comes when Romano’s character asks what Nanjiani thought of 9/11. The response is beyond inappropriate, utterly hilarious and impeccably timed. Just what you’d expect from a comedian.
Still, The Big Sick is not what I expected from Nanjiani. His comedic chops have never been in question – he’s often the funniest part of Silicon Valley. I just wasn’t sure he could carry a romantic lead. And I can imagine playing yourself is not as easy as one would think. Luckily, he’s got a casual, quippy energy that’s downright infectious. It resonates through every agonizing, hilarious moment of The Big Sick. It’s matched every step of the way by the likes of Kazan and Hunter – both welcome presences in any film. Hunter in particular is radiant as Emily’s feisty, protective Mom. Even Romano brings a droll sense of charm to Emily’s not quite sad sack of a Dad. Adeel Akhtar, Anupam Kher & Zenobia Shroff round things out to bring a warm, dysfunctional authenticity as Nanjiani’s own family unit.
That authenticity is what makes the film so enchanting. That’s what Showalter is so good at presenting. His films – even in their overt quirkiness – never come across as anything but sincere. He doesn’t appear in The Big Sick. Nor did he write it. But the film has Showalter’s fingerprints all over it. It’s quirky without being silly. It’s romantic without being schmaltzy. It’s honest without being cynical. It’s human even in its absurdities. Physical jokes are immaculately staged. Verbal jabs land with pinpoint precision. Music comes and goes, but never over powers a moment. And yes, The Big Sick is really, really funny. That’s the one mark that too many comedies miss these days. The Big Sick doesn’t miss. It’s everything that makes Showalter’s work so damn rewarding … only much, much more.
A version of this review originally appeared on March 10, 2017.