The sickly lover is a romance trope as old as "Love means never having to say you're sorry." Thankfully, in the semi-autobiographical film The Big Sick, starring comedian Kumail Nanjiani and written by him and his wife Emily V. Gordon, the tired romantic comedy formula gets a fresh new update, making for one of the year's best films of any genre.
Nanjiani shares a name with the film's male lead, and the female lead is Emily (played by Zoe Kazan). The two meet one night at the comedy club where Kumail performs and instantly make a (slightly combative) connection. When it turns out that he is also her post-coital Uber driver, the two seem stuck together. Tension arrises, however, due to Kumail's very traditional Pakistani family who would sooner disown him than welcome a white woman into the family.
A messy break up leads to silence, broken only when a panicked call from one of Emily's friends asks Kumail to go to the hospital. There, he discovers that due to a serious lung infection Emily is to be placed in a coma.
For a majority of the film's runtime, the outgoing and playful Emily is unresponsive. Instead, Kumail must navigate the tricky terrain not only of his own feelings towards a girl who has no idea he's caring for her, but also her parents Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter). The character development throughout the second and third act is nuanced and utterly believable, characters emotions and opinions remaining discreet from the crisis at the film's centre.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, The Big Sick adds honesty and grittiness to the rom-com formula without having to resort to gratuitous vulgarity. The film often does go for moments of delicate sweetness where other films might desperately deploy a joke, but still avoids being cloying or disingenuous. The most romantic moments shown between Kumail and Emily are balanced out by moments that are mundane, silly, and heartbreaking - in that order.
Perhaps what is most fresh and interesting about The Big Sick is the way it treats the complexity of the immigrant experience, and the desire of Kumail's family to hang onto something that is familiar and significant for them. In The Big Sick, conflict is not suddenly resolved all at once, but wounds heal in their own time, and life moves on. The film refuses to tie things up in a neat package, shattering the audience's expectations.
Above all, The Big Sick is gripping, memorable, and utterly hilarious. Nanjiani, a cohort of comedians including Bo Burnham and Kurt Braunohler, Kazan, Romano, and even Holly Hunter show off some of the finest comedic chops in any recent comedy film. It's rare for a film to make us laugh and cry without giving us emotional whiplash, but The Big Sick does it spectacularly.
The Big Sick opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday August 3rd.