I don’t often go to the Arclight Pasadena, mainly because my Moviepass isn’t valid there and because they don’t do refills on popcorn. But The Big Sick probably wouldn’t have hit the Laemmle or other theaters for another week, so I bit the bullet, coughed up the $16 for a ticket and another $13 for popcorn and a medium diet coke, and coped with the financial sacrifice that I’d just have to chug down PBR instead of a Stella if I went out this weekend.
But after getting my popcorn and soda, I accidentally entered the wrong theater and caught maybe 2-3 minutes of The Big Sick about halfway-in, when Kumail is not quite heckled during his comedy set as much as verbally-harassed-over-his-ethnicity by a Chicago douche bro. Beth and Terry, the parents of Kumail’s comatose ex-girlfriend, jump in to defend him, and later the three leave to kick back at home with wine and pizza. Kumail tells Beth he fucked up with her daughter, and the hilariously-candid Beth, without a hint of sugarcoating, says “…yep, you did.”
This wasn’t really a spoiler for me and shouldn’t be for you, because the film is based off of Kumail Nanjiani’s own experience with then-girlfriend and now-wife Emily V. Gordon. The fact that they are married now in real life makes the reasonable assumption that the couple will end up happy and back together at the end of the film. We know what’s going to happen the whole time before the movie even starts: Emily will get sick shortly after breaking up with Kumail, then Kumail will try to earn the affection of Emily’s parents while she is sick, they’ll be coarse at first but ultimately open up to him, Emily will get better, and then after a bit they’ll get back together. The film isn’t going to diverge in any significant way from Kumail or Emily’s own lives, except he probably wasn’t Uber-driving while palling around with Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant at comedy clubs in Chicago (and if you were Kumail, I apologize for the misassumption.)
That’s why it’s such a pleasant surprise that The Big Sick feels is such a fresh, new, invigorating story that we haven’t seen on-screen in quite some time. Kumail is a stand-up comedian and rideshare driver who becomes involved with a graduate student named Zoe. Each are witty and trade sardonic jabs at each other in-between make out sessions. But Kumail keeps his romance hidden from his Pakistani parents, who devout endless energy to finding the perfect (or really, just any) arranged wife for their son. So Kumail must serve as an unwilling marital pageant judge in-between doing the things he really loves: hanging out with Zoe, performing stand-up, and watching Vincent Price movies on a slowly-deflating air mattress.
The film serves up a flurry of laughs without compromising its more emotionally-driven moments. Much of the tension is derived from Kumail initially hiding his relationship with Emily from his Pakistani family, whom he knows would not only disapprove of the relationship, but completely 86 him socially if they ever found out. The movie isn’t afraid of dealing with this problem in an unflinching way, refusing to throw us overdone Hollywood tropes of everyone realizing that true love is more important that religious or geographic boundaries, or that family isn’t just who shares your bloodline but who you happily let crash on your air mattress. Kumail knows that his parents will fucking hate him and just not ever be fully 100% accepting if they find out about his white girlfriend, and there’s no easy way to tip-toe around problem with everyone coming out ahead.
It’s in these moments, where family expectations come face-to-face with his heart’s true desire, that Kumail really shows us the depths of his dramatic ability. You feel as if the conversations Kumail has with his fictionalized parents are the exact ones he had with his real mom and dad, not afraid to shed tears and sweat when his family is begging him to appreciate his blood the most. Kumail proudly wears his heart on his unbuttoned plaid shirt sleeve, giving a raw vulnerability we never thought we’d see from the guy who speaks solely in sarcasm on Silicon Valley.
It also helps that Kumail is surrounded by a talented cast who refuse to let the movie ever flatline to a single moment of melodrama or boredom. Zoe Kazan is a delight as Emily and Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Terry and Beth. When the film transitions from Emily being well to her hospitalization, Terry and Beth tap-in as fun, fleshed-out characters, a couple still mending the wounds of their own relationship. They never try to serve as surrogate parents or authority figures to Kumail or give him a stern lecture about respecting their daughter’s privacy or how he should win her back. They pretty much say “yeah, we’re just winging this like you are.” And wing away they do.
There’s a real humanity that’s present in each of these characters who make what could be hokey or overwrought moments feel heartfelt. Kumail’s Pakistani parents aren’t caricatures or portrayed as foreign folk who “just aren’t with the times.” We get their thoughts and feelings and emotions about this whole situation, and they are just as legitimate as the thoughts and feelings of Kumail, Emily or her parents. It’s a wonderfully insightful look at modern romance and obligations to those we love with fresh, often side-splitting humor peppered in. Even though you know how it will end, you’ll wish you could go back to the beginning once you get there.