'The Big Sick' Review: A Charming Rom-Com Meets a Harrowing Hospital Drama

Kumail Nanjiani plays Kumail and Zoe Kazan plays Emily in "The Big Sick." Sarah Shatz/Lionsgate

Remember Meet the Parents? Girlfriend takes nice boyfriend home to meet her mother and father, and all manner of awkwardness ensues. The Big Sick adds two layers to that rom-com recipe, one novel (girlfriend falls into a medically induced coma) and one increasingly common (boyfriend's devout Muslim parents are pushing him toward an arranged marriage). That scenario also happens to be the true story of Kumail Nanjiani, a comedian best known for his role on the HBO series Silicon Valley, and Emily V. Gordon. The film was written by Gordon and Nanjiani, who plays his younger self (as a character also named Kumail), with a big league assist from chief comedy enabler Judd Apatow, who produced the film.

When we meet Kumail, he's a flailing stand-up having a one-night stand with sharp, witty Emily (Zoe Kazan). Neither is interested in a relationship, but their obvious attraction leads to a string of quirky dates involving horror B movies and late-night rides home (Kumail works as an Uber driver, a fictionalized detail). His traditional Pakistani parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) are aggressively campaigning for an arranged marriage; his mother plies him with headshots of hot prospects, like a used car dealer trying to nail down a sale. Kumail lies to his parents to keep Emily a secret and lies to Emily to hide his parents' wishes. The illness that leads to Emily's coma happens after an enraged Emily discovers the headshots.

The girlfriend-in-a-coma theme is a familiar one, but unlike Pedro Almodóvar's rhapsodic dramatic comedy Talk to Her, the medical crisis here is harrowing. The Big Sick, it turns out, is not just about Emily's coma. It's about the unremitting terror of being a parent, which unfolds as Kumail navigates Emily's mysterious health crisis with her terrified parents, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, a feisty scene-stealer. There is comic gold in the cultural disconnect between Kumail and Emily's congenial, if politically incorrect, father. Nanjiani and Romano have a natural rapport; both actors are TV veterans, and the film sometimes falls into sitcom rhythms. (The most obvious sitcom trope: scenes of Kumail performing at comedy clubs and hanging with fellow comics.) This isn't a bad thing, given the weighty themes of life-threatening illness and racial insensitivity, and director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris), who has a demonstrated knack for the sweet and oddball, navigates the tonal shift from rom-com to hospital drama without losing the plot or the humor.

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But like so many romantic comedies, The Big Sick finishes predictably, and not just because Gordon and Nanjiani's backstory is well documented. At 124 minutes, it's also too long. As compelling (even, at times, frightening) as the coma scenes are, Nanjiani's and Kazan's chemistry was strong enough that time might have been better spent on their precrisis relationship, which flew by in montage. Leaving the theater, I was also curious about their post-coma life. But I guess that's all online: They've been married for 10 years.