Pakistan-born stand-up comic Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) meets American graduate student Emily (Zoe Kazan) at the club where he’s performing. They hit it off immediately, and what looks at first like a one-night stand gradually develops into something more.
Perhaps fueled by his parents’ disappointment in his career choice (they would have preferred he be a lawyer rather than a stand-up comedian), Kumail hides other important details of his life from them: he no longer prays (he spends requisite time after dinner in the basement goofing around until he can go back up for dessert); most importantly, he sits through the steady stream of Pakistani-American girls his mother tries to arrange his marriage with, silently taking their photos and CVs, which he places into a cigar box. Never does he attempt to even broach the subject of his blooming relationship with Emily, a psychology grad student at the University of Chicago.
When Emily discovers the cigar box where Kumail puts the photos of the women his mother is trying to arrange his marriage with, she must confront the realization that Kumail has not told his family about her at all. She is justifiably angry, and her earlier comment about the one-man show he’s been developing – “I learned a lot about Pakistan. And cricket. I just wish I’d learned more about you.” – seems to be echoed in her realization that Kumail has shared so very little of himself with her. Angry, she decides to end the relationship.
A disheartened Kumail continues to work on his stand-up routine, hoping for a big break, all the while working his pick-up lines on women who come to the club. His tireless mother continues to try to arrange his marriage.
One night, Kumail gets a call from a friend of Emily: Emily is hospitalized with an infection that requires her to be placed in a medically-induced coma. Kumail makes the most awkward of calls to Emily’s family, her mother Beth (Holly Hunter) and father Terry (Ray Romano); his first meeting with them happens not only after Emily has broken up with him, but also under these incredibly stressful circumstnaces. Emily’s parents know who Kumail is, though; their initial bristly, grudging encounters with him give way as they gradually get to know Kumail and draw him into their family circle.
The issues that The Big Sick explores aren’t new, and even have an acronym, ABCD, or American Born Confused Desi. In the case of Kumail, it’s more American raised since he was born in Pakistan, but the effect is the same: the child of immigrants needs to find a way to bridge the distances between home culture and American culture, and makes mistakes that mean no one in his life is happy with him. But it’s what the film does with this that is absolutely refreshing. Kumail’s conservative Muslim parents (played to perfection by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) are angry with him when they discover what he’s been hiding from them, and although they threaten to cut off all ties with him, they do so in a way that’s quietly dignified, and that leaves the door open just a wee bit for some kind of future reconciliation.
The Big Sick is, essentially, a movie about healing. First and foremost, it’s about Emily’s actual need to recover from her illness, but the film shows us a number of relationships that would benefit from some kind of healing, and subtly allows that to happen. Kumail refuses to allow his parents to disown him, and takes steps to start bridging the distance that has grown between them. Emily’s parents, we discover, are dealing with her father’s brief infidelity; caring for their daughter serves, eventually, to bring them back together. Emily’s parents are justifiably annoyed to find Kumail at the hospital – he hurt their daughter, so what, really, is his place at a time like this? But Kumail’s obvious concern for Emily, and his growing realization that he made a mistake in his relationship with her, allow them to grow closer to Kumail and to forgive him.
I loved the fact, too, that when Emily comes out of the coma, she hasn’t had the same kind of transformation as Kumail has, for obvious reasons (duh, coma). Though he tries to apologize and make amends, Emily finds it difficult to even consider restarting where they left off. It’s not a magical happy ending at that point, but the much more honest and truthful realization that this is a relationship that might never succeed, but if it does, it needs to start over on much different terms.
The Big Sick gets things right on so many levels: all the actors are wonderful; the writing is sharp and smart and funny. Most importantly, the film never falls into the trap of treacly rom-com, instead displaying such warmth and wit and truth that you can’t help but fall for its charms. It’s an unconventional story, but one that works so very, very well.