What if you fell in love with someone and you knew your family wouldn't approve? Not only would they not approve but they'd very likely disown you for letting one of the most normal, and pleasurable, things that can happen in life happen to you. That's the premise of Michael Showalter's The Big Sick. That and how would the relationship between your potential in-laws and yourself play out when you have a girlfriend in a coma?
I know. I know! It's serious. But this is, to all intents and purposes, more a romantic comedy than a weepie or a medical drama. I'm an emotional man, a romantic at heart, so, naturally, I wept - but most of you will probably be made of sterner stuff. Though there were laugh out loud funny scenes the emphasis was more on the rom than the com which, as a Judd Apatow production (think Superbad, Bridesmaids, Anchorman:The Legend of Ron Burgundy), wrongfooted me a bit, but in a good way.
Stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, in a story loosely based on his real life, as a Pakistan born, Chicago based, Uber driver who spends his evenings performing fair-to-middling stand-up and trying to catch a break. His family are of fairly traditional stock, introducing Kumail to a series of potential brides in the hope that he, like his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar who's previously appeared in Four Lions and The Dictator), will accept an arranged marriage and find love that way.
Kumail, though always respectful and with clear and deep wells of affection for his family, can't bring himself to think this way. He doesn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer, he's given up praying, he drinks wine, and he's only gone and fallen for a white girl. Emily (Zoe Kazan) is based on Kumail's real life partner Emily J.Gordon who co-scripted the film with Nanjiani. She's a trainee therapist with a kooky streak that instantly wins Kumail's heart even if it takes a while for either of them to admit their true feelings.
Romance on the screen doesn't really work unless you can believe in the characters and Kumail and Emily's relationship is both credible and sweet. From the witty banter the night they meet, to his slightly awkward attempts to mansplain 70s British horror comedy The Abominable Dr Phibes, and those quiet moments cuddling on the sofa. The film does a great job of condensing the intensity and the serotonin highs of the early weeks and months of a new relationship.
But Kumail's inability to reconcile his love life with his family life, or prioritise one over the other, leads to predictable difficulties and eventually they go their separate ways, though it's made very clear that they still love each other. Just as Kumail's comedy career starts picking up he gets a call from Emily's friend Jessie (Rebecca Naomi Jones) to tell him Emily has been rushed to hospital.
Kumail heads straight there where he meets, for the first time, Emily's parents. Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) are up from North Carolina to be at their daughter's bedside. They're one third Darby and Joan, one third at war, and final third some kind of comedy double act. During the long hours, and days, spent by Emily's bedside and around Chicago Kumail gets to know Beth and Terry, and Beth and Terry get to know Kumail. Awkward questions about 9/11 (which gives Kumail one of the film's funniest lines) are replaced by genuine affection and it's great credit to all involved that this is never allowed to get too schmaltzy.
Tears may outweigh the laughs but the film always seems to strike just the right balance of each. Kumail is excellent throughout and Zoe Kazan's Emily is always an equal and never a foil. Romano and Hunter reveal themselves to be fully fleshed out characters unafraid of their all too human flaws. Kumail's family don't get too many scenes that aren't based around the table of their big house in the Chicago suburbs yet Zenobia Schroff (as Kumail's mum, Sharmeen) manages to make a Muslim mom that could've appeared straight out of central casting endearing and layered and Anupam Kher (Kumail's dad, Azmat) seems to be ever keen to show the fictional Kumail where he got his comedy chops from.
Backstage at the comedy club we get to meet Kumail's mates CJ (Bo Burnham), Mary (Aidy Bryant), and the hapless, hopeless Chris (Kurt Braunohler). They help a little with the exposition and developing the plot but essentially they're there to support Kumail emotionally using the tried and tested method of ripping the piss out of him at every given opportunity. Bar one heckling 'jock' at a stand-up night there's not one unlikeable character in this film.
That's not a problem at all. In life we surround ourselves with people we like but that doesn't mean we don't sometimes fall out, or that things are easy, or that we don't have stories to tell. This is a heartwarming, charming film that manages to say things about race, misunderstanding of different cultures, and the different ways different people (even in the same family) choose to assimilate when they find themselves in new environments. Jordan Peele's Get Out used horror to denude his anti-racist message of self-righteousness. This film has put comedy, equally successfully, to very similar ends.
Far more than a film about race, however, it is a film about love. The love between lovers, the love of family, and the fear of what happens when we realise we may lose the person we love the most. Appropriately enough, I loved it.