Films of the year: The Big Sick

Our countdown of our top ten films of the year begins in earnest with The Big Sick...

Films Of 2017: The Big Sick (10th place)

You don’t see many comedy movies based on true stories. Yes, writers and performers will borrow from experience in trying to make us laugh, but when something in this genre tries a faithful version of that ‘based on actual events’ thing, it usually means the story itself was so funny it had to be a movie, and there can be a lot of meta-winking to that status for laughs.

That’s not so with The Big Sick, a romantic comedy with dead serious stakes and a frankly startling emotional range. Billed as “an awkward true story”, the inspiration comes from married screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, who recount the health scare that defined their unusual courtship. Nanjiani, who you might know from HBO’s Silicon Valley or as a podcast stalwart from The Indoor Kids, The X-Files Files and Harmontown, also plays himself in the film.

Kumail is the Pakistani son of Muslim immigrants living in Chicago, and he’s trying to make it as a stand-up comic when he meets Emily (played here by Zoe Kazan), an American girl who heckles him. The two hit it off, but Kumail doesn’t tell her that his very religious mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) has long been trying to marry him off to any one of a long line of eligible Pakistani women, and nor does he tell his family about Emily.

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When she finds out, the couple have a major falling-out, which proves doubly unfortunate when Emily falls ill and is put into an induced coma before Kumail can make amends. This is how he meets her parents Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter), and although the only thing they really have in common is that they love Emily, they bond while they nervously wait for her to wake up.

Aside from his TV and podcast work, Nanjiani has been the saving grace in studio comedies of wildly variable quality in recent years. He was the ‘Snake Gyllenhaal’ guy in Central Intelligence, the acrobatic masseuse in Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates and a deadpan campus police officer in Fist Fight. He does a lot with only a little in all of those movies, and it’s glorious to see him get the lead role breakthrough he deserves here.

The movie’s story belongs to both him and his wife, but he really puts himself out there on screen as well. And relevant to our interests, Kumail is clearly a big geek, and his abiding love of The X-Files is a running gag. Even if some of us wouldn’t like to admit it, geek men should recognise something of their own behaviour in the scene early on in which Kumail shows Emily The Abominable Dr. Phibes on their first date to gauge her reaction. It’s not for me to say the same about the midnight poop scene, but that rings true as well.

Later, Hunter and Romano are both wonderful in supporting roles as Emily’s parents. At that point, there’s little question of them being prospective in-laws to Kumail, because they’re privy to details that his own family are not, but it’s a film in which compassion and understanding between characters, even in a harrowing situation, proves absolutely paramount.

Judd Apatow’s part in producing the film may suggest a certain kind of comedy, but it’s not a line-o-rama from the usual parade of comedians. There’s a great script at the core of this, and Wet Hot American Summer‘s Michael Showalter directs it with good humour and grace. It feels natural without trying to affect an air of realism, and if there’s any improvisation here, it’s only really obvious in the backstage comedy club scenes, in an environment where it makes more sense for characters to be always ‘on’.

The number of plates it manages to spin in creating a complete portrait of this unusual relationship, from Kumail’s experiences in America at his family’s dinner table or contending with racist hecklers (with an assist from a ferociously loyal Beth in one terrific scene) to the purgatory of the hospital waiting room where Emily’s loved ones wring their hands and run the whole emotional gamut of caring for a loved one. It’s well realised and performed by all involved.

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There’s no way you can write off that well observed sensibility by saying that Nanjiani is just playing himself, or to say that it’s just recounting what really happened. Writers are always advised to write what they know, but this can’t have been a fun time for Nanjiani or Gordon to relive, so to turn that into hilarious and relatable comedy is no mean feat.

The Big Sick is a really special piece of work that makes a deeply personal story feel funny, accessible and ultimately life-affirming. It’s the best romantic comedy we’ve seen in years, and on top of all of that, it contains 2017’s funniest joke about 9/11, even though Kumail immediately apologises for it. Even if you feel bad for laughing at that, it’s ultimately a curative experience.