When Judd Apatow wants ‘the big conversation’ it’s not just the comic-addressee who should get excited. Previous convos, with Steve Carell, Kirsten Wiig and Amy Schumer, in which the producer asked each talent: ‘have you any ideas?’ led to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bridesmaids and Trainwreck. His is an impressive eye for potential and one with an extraordinarily surefooted track record. Now Apatow has unearthed The Big Sick, the funniest rom-com of recent years, by mining the experience and skill of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. He knows how to pick ‘em alright.
Nanjiani and Gordon have drawn on an acutely cinematic tale within their own relationship history for The Big Sick, which has Michael Showalter as its director. The ‘big sick’ of the film’s title refers to the medically induced coma in which Gordon found herself back in 2006, just eight months after the couple had begun dating. The story’s been dramatised somewhat for its big screen translation but the essence remains the same. Nanjiani stayed by Gordon’s side throughout the devastating eight day ordeal, accompanied by her parents (who he barely knew), and gained a whole new perspective on life in the process. By the time Emily emerged, Kumail was as good as ready for marriage. That would’ve been the traditional ‘big’ moment for a rom-com.
The film opens traditionally enough with Kumail as a wannabe stand up on the Chicago comedy circuit. As in real life, the couple first meet when Emily heckles her future husband whilst attending one of his shows before later refusing to go out with him. This in spite of his killer opening line: ‘You really shouldn’t heckle comedians’. With running beats of When Harry Met Sally, a film this is every bit as good as, Kumail and Emily proceed to a period of ‘not dating’ of the friends with benefits mode. A brilliantly inspired sequence sees Emily return to Kumail’s flat to watch Night of the Living Dead on his airbed, before segueing into sex to the accompaniment of William Loose’s deliciously spine-curling horror score. Attempting to make her ‘this was fun…’ exit, Emily calls a taxi only to be rooted straight through to Kumail, a part time Uber driver: ‘Your driver will be ready as soon as he puts on his pants’ he grins with a rye smile.
Back at his parents’ home, Kumail (who plays himself in the film) makes regular returns for meals with his Pakistani family: his Mum (Zenobia Shroff), Dad (Anupam Kher), brother (Adeel Akhtar) and sister (Shenaz Treasury). They’re a modern family – ‘Go and pray, and then we can eat ice cream’ – but one stringent to the practice of arranged marriage. As his relationship with Emily (Zoe Kazan) blooms in secret, he’s faced with a sequence of would-be brides over these two family dinners. Each brings with them a profile and photo, which Kumail keeps in a cigar box back in his flat. It’s when Emily discovers this that their relationship fractures – a fiction exclusive to the film. Cue the coma and the entrance of Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry – played on scene-stealing form by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.
The Big Sick is a deeply winning gem of a film. There’s a truthfulness here, so often lost in the perplexing machinations of rom-com constructions, that expands beyond even the fact based origins of its story. It helps, of course, that the script is genuinely hilarious and, crucially, consistent.
Happy to touch on darker strains of humour – there’s a seriously funny 9/11 one-liner – Nanjiani and Gordon have managed to imbue their first film with a heartening honesty. Relationships aren’t easy and they’re not fairytales but here that’s conveyed mercifully sans spontaneous storms and Coldplay ballads.
It’s hard to imagine audiences leaving The Big Sick without a smile stretched from ear to tickled ear. With its warm heart and hugely likeable nuclear cast, this might just be the feel good film of year. It is absolutely that lovely.