The Big Sick is a sweet romantic comedy based on the true story of script co-authors Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. Kumail (Nanjiani) is a standup comic honing his craft and searching for an audience on the Chicago open mic scene while moonlighting as an Uber driver, Emily (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of director Elia Kazan) a grad student studying psychology. They enjoy what each anticipates will be a one-night stand stand after she catches his act. To their surprise it becomes something more.
Complications ensue because Kumail is the son of Pakistani immigrants who still observe their culture's traditions, among them the custom of arranged marriage. Kumail regularly joins his family at their home for dinner. Invariably the doorbell rings midway through the meal, and his mother proceeds to introduce a young Pakistani woman who "just happened to drop by." He deflects these attempts at matchmaking, sometimes with humor, sometimes with exasperation. His mother responds with exasperation of her own and finds another young Pakistani woman who will just happen to drop by at dinnertime.
The family is middle class, Kumail's father a professional with a graduate degree. His brother is an arranged marriage that turned out quite happily. His parents, especially his mother, want the same for him because they want only what is best for their son and of course they know what is best. They are little more enchanted with his career path than with his resistance to an arranged marriage. As he explains in a comedy routine, for his parents there is a continuum of professions, with doctor at the top, followed by engineer, lawyer, and many others, until at the bottom comes ISIS, and beneath ISIS is comedian.
Kumail would be ostracized from the family if they learned that he has taken up with a white girl, maybe with any girl not Pakistani. For him that is all but unfathomable. They make him crazy, but they are his family and he loves them. To Emily he reveals as little as possible about his family and nothing of their ideas about marriage. Meantime, Emily has told her parents all about Kumail. They are coming to Chicago for a visit and want to meet him.
Each time a young Pakistani woman happens to come by, Kumail is given a photograph, which he takes back to his apartment and deposits in a cigar box that is opened only when he has a new photo to add to the collection. His truth, including his indecisiveness about his family and the affair, comes out when Emily happens across the box. Emily is devastated.
The story takes a turn when Emily is hospitalized with a mysterious infection that requires her to be put into a medically induced coma. Kumail meets her parents, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, for the first time at the hospital. The encounter is predictably awkward. Romano is fine as Terry, the good-hearted, somewhat bumbling father, earnest, likable, and a little bit of a doofus, while Hunter is wonderful as Beth the mother, fiery, cantankerous, hot-tempered, headstrong, and unlike her husband openly antagonistic toward this stranger who caused her daughter grief. Hunter has long been a favorite (Raising Arizona, The Piano, and many others), and here I enjoyed her performance as much as ever.
The beauty of this film lies in the portrayal of Kumail and Emily, his parents, and her parents when they make the the scene as complex individuals who exhibit a panoply of ordinary qualities that go with being human, love, desire, emotional frailty, anxiety, ambition, stubbornness, and the rest. Much of it plays out at the hospital, where Kumail, Terry, and Beth are faced with the terrifying possibility that Emily will not make it. The doctors try to be reassuring, but they are unable to figure out her illness and can offer little hope. Terry and Beth compulsively ask the doctors to spell each medical term so they can look it up on the internet, where what they find leaves them even more terrified than they were before. Then there is the conniption Beth has when she learns that the hospital is rated the 17th best in Chicago, whereupon she decides Emily must be moved to to top-rated Northwestern.
Kumail is a nice fellow who finds himself in a situation where he just does not know what to do. Fearful of the consequences if he tells his family he is carrying the torch for Emily, and of what will happen if he tells Emily about his family and their expectations for him, he withholds things from all of them and gets caught up in a web of deceits and betrayals. He does not want to hurt any of them, or to lose any of them, and he can see no path forward outside of choosing between his family and Emily. So he tries not to choose at all. In the end he wounds those most dear to him, and he too is wounded.
Nanjiana, Gordon, and director Showalter merit kudos for creating genuine narrative tension when we know things will turn out okay after some fashion or other because this is after all comedy, not tragedy. The concluding scenes are heartwarming and genuine when they could easily have been sappy. Kazan is absolutely winning as Emily. Nanjiana plays his fictional self with just the right measure of restraint. Ditto for the portrayal of Kumail's pals and the comedy open mic scene and for Kumail's family and the Pakistani women who just happened to drop by. Kudos all around.