Michael Showalter, 120 mins, starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano
Western viewers will learn more about Pakistan from The Big Sick than from any other US-made romantic comedy they are ever likely to see. That’s not exactly a recommendation but it goes a long way to explaining what makes the film so original and so charming.
When you see the name Judd Apatow (producer of Bridesmaids and Trainwreck) above the credits, you expect the humour is going to be broad and very bawdy. The title hints that bodily functions might be to the fore. Instead, the film takes its wry, gentle tone from its lead character, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani).
He’s a sweet-natured, Pakistani-American, Chicago-based stand-up comedian and Uber driver who has an incredibly complicated private life and is struggling to overcome the great divide between his Muslim background and the secular world in which he has landed.
The film is cowritten by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V Gordon, and is closely based on the story of their own courtship. They first encountered one another when she heckled him at a stand-up gig. In the film, Kumail and Emily (Zoe Kazan) have a brief fling with no notion that it will lead to anything serious.
He’s a struggling comedian who performs sets at a tiny club alongside his friends and fellow comedians. They all dream of making it to the Montreal comedy festival or even to LA, where they might get to “hang out with Elijah Wood and shit”. They’re strictly small-time. She’s a graduate student specialising in psychology.
Some of the best scenes in the film, which could easily belong in a sitcom, involve Kumail’s regular visits to his family. His parents, strict Muslims, dote on him but expect him to marry a wife of their choosing and to become a doctor or lawyer.
Veteran Bollywood actor Anupam Kher plays his father, an old charmer with a twinkle in his eye. Zenobia Shroff is his affectionate but despairing mother Sharmeen, continually conspiring to find him a bride. British actor Adeel Akhtar (who was in Four Lions) is his sardonic but conformist older brother, Naveed.
Everything about Kumail exasperates the other family members. He doesn’t pray enough. He hasn’t grown a beard. He doesn’t pay attention to the prospective Pakistani brides his mother serves up at every family dinner, almost as if they’re part of the menu.
The humour here is often double edged. We are invited to laugh with the comedians – and sometimes at them, when their material sucks or they deliver it badly. Kumail’s magnum opus is an evolving one-man performance piece in which he looks at his personal history – and that of Pakistan.
It’s informative but also just a little mind-numbing. What is funny for us as viewers isn’t his long-winded anecdotes but the bewildered faces of the audience members, who aren’t sure whether they are supposed to laugh as Kumail provides details about the industrial history of his homeland.
Early on, The Big Sick seems to be shaping up as a conventional romcom. Emily (played with considerable charm by Kazan) and Kumail watch old George Romero and Vincent Price horror movies together.
They tease one another and hang out – but both are convinced this is only a short-term relationship. He’s not prepared to give up his family and knows he’ll be disowned if he doesn’t marry a Pakistani girl. She has her own reasons for shying away from long-term commitment. So far, so predictable. Then, the film veers away from convention by throwing in the “big sick”, a life threatening illness.
Director Michael Showalter brings such a light touch to the storytelling that we don’t realise how dark the material is actually becoming. One of the glories of the film is its ability to find comic details in the most bleak and oppressive situations.
In its own delicate way, it is exposing the everyday racism that Muslims experience in America. Some of its best jokes involve Kumail responding when he is goaded about 9/11 or accused of being a member of ISIS. The humour, though, comes tinged with frustration and even despair at the attitudes it exposes.
Showalter captures that strange mix of emotions (anger, anxiety, bewilderment, boredom) any family will feel when sitting in visiting rooms of hospitals for prolonged periods, waiting for news that could be devastating.
The filmmakers also extract maximum comic value from Kumail’s extremely awkward relationship with Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who come into Chicago from out of town. In a cast full of comedians, Holly Hunter stands out for her sheer energy and abrasiveness. She terrifies both medical staff and hecklers in the comedy club with her outspoken candour, spitfire-like delivery and refusal to shy away from a row.
Inevitably, the storytelling has a maudlin undertow as illness is confronted and family members endure the predictable feuds followed by the even more predictable reconciliations. The film’s most winning quality, though, is its ordinariness.
Kumail isn’t an alpha male. His jokes don’t always work. His apartment is a mess. He’s a very low key, self-deprecating type of movie hero but one with a winning perspective on life. His offbeat point of view is what captures Emily and it’s likely to win over even the most sceptical audiences too.
The Big Sick hits UK cinemas 28 July.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies