The final premiere I attended at SXSW ended on a high note with “The Big Sick.” Directed by Michael Showalter and produced by Judd Apatow, the rom-com depicts the real-life love story between Kumail Nanjiani, a comedian who comes from a traditional, Muslim Pakistani family, and Emily Gordon, a therapist who meets Kumail at one of his shows. They soon fall for one another, but Kumail’s family’s traditions require that he marry a woman from his own culture, complicating his relationship with Emily because he feels he needs to keep her a secret. To complicate matters further, Emily contracts a life-threatening infection, forcing her into a medically induced coma and causing Kumail to question what he wants and what he believes.
On paper, one might think a story like this lends itself to tonal inconsistency or melodrama, but I was genuinely blown away by how smart and witty it was. Credit for that goes entirely to Nanjiani and Gordon, who cowrote the script together, conveying their own story with honesty and charm. The pacing and writing feel organic because the pair capture their own history so well. In the Q and A, they discussed how they continuously revised, reworked and fine-tuned the script to get it where it needed to be, and their diligence shows.
Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, while Zoe Kazan plays his now-wife Emily. I would imagine it wasn’t easy to cast someone who could play Emily opposite Kumail, but Kazan gives an excellent performance. Much of the film’s emotional arc rests on the believability of that relationship, and Kazan and Nanjiani’s onscreen chemistry knocks it out of the park.
Ray Romano and Holly Hunter round out the cast as Terry and Beth, Emily’s parents who have a complicated history of their own, adding another layer of depth to the story. There’s a reason why these two performers are as established as they are, and their undeniable talent shines through once again in “The Big Sick.” Romano and Nanjiani riff off one another with well-timed lines; Romano was able to inject a few lines of improv here and there throughout the film. While I found Hunter’s acting slightly over-the-top toward the beginning, I enjoyed her interactions with Nanjiani in particular, adding some intriguing beats to the film.
Not only do Nanjiani and Gordon convey all of these relationships compellingly, but the film also tackles larger themes of tradition, religion and discrimination. Kumail faces internal conflict because he loves his family and wants to respect his culture and customs because his family has sacrificed so much for him. They meet often as a family for dinner, where his mother continuously invites potential partners over for Kumail to meet—which becomes a source of comedy as Kumail finds excuses not to pursue any of them—so Kumail can marry and begin a family of his own. However, at the same time, Kumail struggles with what it is that he believes, knowing that the potential love of his life—who might not survive her illness—does not align with these customs. Kumail said he felt much of this tension in real life as well, which added nuance and realism to the story. The film offers a balanced glimpse into how tradition and lack thereof mesh with one another.
The film also confronts racial stereotypes, both overtly and inferentially. During one of Kumail’s comedy shows, a man from the audience shouts at him that he should “go back to ISIS,” referring to the color of his skin. These assumptions also occur in a subtler way when Terry asks Kumail what he thinks of 9/11 (to which Kumail replies “...Anti”). “The Big Sick” acknowledges the prejudice and discrimination surrounding Muslim culture rather than stirring away from it, and it does so while staying true to the tone of the film.
“The Big Sick” offers the perfect blend of comedy, romance and realism. I really felt for these characters and their unusual, challenging circumstances. While it wasn’t on my radar going into the festival, it goes down as one of my favorite screenings leaving it.