The Big Sick (2017)


Just when you give up on ever seeing something original in the overcrowded romantic comedy genre along comes something fresh and clever. But what is so funny about being a Muslim or being placed in an induced coma? The double-edged sword of stand-up comedy works brilliantly in The Big Sick (2017), a story that finds intelligent inter-racial humour where few dare to tread.

It’s a simple story that really happened. Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is from a traditional Pakistani Muslim family who expect their son to pray regularly until the right girl is found for an arranged marriage. He pretends to study law but he really wants to be a stand-up comedian because he has a knack for making people laugh at themselves. At a comedy gig a heckler named Emily (Zoe Kazan) winds him up and they are soon friends. She insists it’s a one-night fling but they are soon in the deep end. Just as the inter-racial issue becomes a sticking point, Emily is struck by a sudden and mysterious illness that requires her to be placed in an induced coma. For the next two weeks, Kumail is a constant presence at the hospital where he meets her parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). It’s a rocky relationship at first but Kumail’s support and personality wins them over.

It may not seem that this story has much going for it. Given its autobiographical source, Kumail essentially plays himself as a professional stand-up comic and cannot avoid depicting racial stereotypes. The initially fractious then warm relations with Emily’s folks progresses too quickly and their endless conversations over both serious and trivial matters often feels as if their daughter was away at camp rather than struggling for life. The movie length of almost two hours is a risky call for a rom-com, especially as the story offers little suspense.  So what makes the movie work?

It’s all about the script and timing of delivery. The dialogue is genuinely funny, insightful, and heartfelt. The current political climate of Muslim-phobia makes the timing prescient at several levels, and the non-stop one-liners keep getting laughs while making you squirm in your seat.  Rapid-fire quips across hot-button issues like 9/11 and terrorism illuminate prejudice using social satire without giving offence. Kumail’s performance has natural authenticity and never feels like he is exploiting the racial tensions of our era. His delivery is immaculately understated and on target every time. Zoe Kazan has much less share of the screen but she is warm and wonderful in what we see. The chemistry between them is a bonus.

Some audiences will detour around any film with a nauseous title like The Big Sick. Don’t make that mistake. The metaphor refers not only to Emily’s illness but to the wider social malaise of nations erecting walls to keep people out and condemning what they do not understand. Laughter dissolves difference.


Director:  Michael Showalter

Stars:  Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano

A USA production