A failing Asian performer, a romance jilted by traditional Islamic family values, and a surprisingly deep social undertone: it’s fairly difficult to pitch The Big Sick without stirring up at least some comparisons to Aziz Ansari’s Netflix mega hit Master of None.
And while Kumail Nanjiani and real-life wife Emily Gordon don’t quite manage to cover the ground Ansari does as effectively, they certainly give it a solid run-for-its-money, and in their film’s finest moments, definitely show whispers of a whole new, much more progressive territory for the classic Hollywood rom-com.
The true-life romance at the centre of The Big Sick is its real hard sell here. Nanjiani and Gordon’s script is teaming with positively charming personal anecdotes; from the cheesy opening pick-up lines to a hilarious throwaway about, of all things, Gordon’s delicate toilet habits, it’s very quickly clear that its central love pairing are much, much more than just the back-handed lovers we’re so used to seeing. Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan (stepping in for Gordon in the acting department) share such an easy and yet, totally explosive spark that watching the two of them do anything together is nothing short of an absolute joy.
The film itself certainly struggles to balance this with the rest of its far darker content though. Because whilst everything seems simple enough on first approach, a second act turn that not only hospitalises Kazan’s character, but puts her in a non-responsive coma too, totally derails a lot of what came before it. And as bold a move as it is, with quite a chunk of the already bloated 2-hour run-time devoted to adjusting to the film’s new ‘world’, it does for the most-part pay off.
To continue as it began, as a very simplistic and cute, but otherwise fairly uninspired romance, would’ve certainly flown The Big Sick far too close to the rom-com bargain bin. In telling an actual story, and a relatively unique one at that, Najiani and Gordon give themselves much more of a leg to stand on, and a better place to showcase their performances.
As mentioned, the leading duo are a firm fit, but more surprisingly is just how well the supporting players fit in too. Nanjiani’s stand-up buddies give off plenty of supplementary laughs, and his terrifically cast core family (mostly Utopia’s Adeel Akhtar as Nanjiani’s off-kilter brother) are, at times, totally heartbreaking additions. But most of all is the frankly inspired pairing of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Kazan’s parents; a flawed but brilliantly real ageing married couple, with their own quirks and ideals that help power the film right out of a potentially damaging middle-act slump.
It might not quite be as cool as Master of None, and The Big Sick certainly suffers from some unavoidable structural problems, but on the whole, it delivers a moving, thoughtful and ultimately, very sweetly funny look at 21st-century love, cultural borders and the importance of self-discovery. And as preachy and twee as they might sound, thanks to a rock solid script and plenty of exciting new ground, The Big Sick stands out as one of the most defining rom-coms of the year.
The Big Sick was screened as part of the Sundance London Film Festival 2017.