Based on the real-life courtship between Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick tells the story of Pakistan-born aspiring comedian Kumail (Nanjiani), who connects with grad student Emily (Kazan) after one of his stand-up sets. However, what they thought would be just a one-night stand blossoms into the real thing, which complicates the life that is expected of Kumail by his traditional Muslim parents. When Emily is beset with a mystery illness, it forces Kumail to navigate the medical crisis with her parents, Beth and Terry (Hunter and Romano) who he's never met, while dealing with the emotional tug-of-war between his family and his heart.
The boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back formula has been recycled and regurgitated ad nauseam throughout Hollywood history. And though familiarity may not breed contempt, it sure fosters a severe sense of frustration and disappointment. Finding a fresh rom-com angle is like finding a pearl in an oyster, but actor Kumail Ninjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon needed to look no further than their own lives to discover that elusive diamond in the rough. Their surprising love story, which involves a life-or-death medical event, could have found its way onto the small screen as a sappy disease-of-the-week TV movie, but by lacing such a serious topic with abundant and sometimes irreverent humor, The Big Sick vanquishes the romantic comedy curse and wins both our hearts and our respect.
Building a breezy rom-com around a young woman in a medically induced coma might seem like the pinnacle of bad taste, but Ninjiani and Gordon (who co-wrote the screenplay) and director Michael Showalter take great care never to exploit the crisis. Instead, they use Emily's illness as a springboard to explore a multitude of other important and relatable issues, such as family ties, ethnicity, religion, marriage, personal integrity, and maturation. The humor is wonderfully human, as are the characters, all of whom exhibit an endearing array of quirks, foibles, and idiosyncrasies that rarely seem forced or artificial. Projecting warmth without allowing it to melt into a syrupy mess can be a dicey proposition, but The Big Sick walks that delicate tightrope with admirable grace.
The meet-cute occurs when blonde, perky Emily (Zoe Kazan) innocently disrupts the stand-up routine of struggling Muslim comedian Kumail (Ninjiani) in a Chicago club. Sparks instantly fly, and after some playful banter, a casual hook-up in Kumail's apartment caps off the evening. Both initially treat the liaison as a one-night stand, but somehow history keeps repeating itself, and before long the two begin a real relationship that quickly becomes quite serious.
Kumail, however, finds himself in a bind. His strict Pakistani parents demand he follow the Muslim custom of an arranged marriage with a woman of the same faith and heritage. His single-minded mother works tirelessly to engineer that end by inviting a parade of prospects to their weekly family dinners, a routine that rankles Kumail, who - unbeknownst to his parents - has become completely Americanized. (He respects his culture's traditions and religion, but won't practice them.) Kumail is well aware a public rejection of Islam (not to mention marriage to a white American woman) would dishonor his family and provoke his parents to disown him, so he keeps his relationship with Emily a secret. Emily knows nothing of this, but when she discovers a box containing pictures of Kumail's potential Pakistani matches, the truth comes out. Kumail adds fuel to the fire by refusing to sacrifice his family for a future with Emily, who feels hurt and betrayed, and abruptly ends their relationship.
Not long after the break-up, Kumail learns Emily is very sick and alone in a hospital emergency room. He rushes to her side, but when her condition deteriorates and a doctor informs him she must be put into a medically induced coma to save her life, he signs some consent forms and notifies her parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter). Unlike Kumail's mom and dad, Terry and Beth know all about Kumail and Emily's relationship and how deeply Kumail hurt their daughter. So when they arrive the next day, the three of them begin a (very) awkward vigil as they navigate the ups and downs of Emily's illness, the tricky minefield of medical bureaucracy, and the unspoken tensions simmering between them. Yet as they spend more time together, the ice begins to break and a tenuous bond develops…all while Emily’s life hangs in the balance.
Twenty years ago, the charming Sandra Bullock rom-com While You Were Sleeping traversed similar territory, but used a fairy tale tone to melt the heartstrings and classic screwball elements like mistaken identity and an eccentric family to generate laughs. The coma in that film was simply a light-hearted plot device, but in The Big Sick it's a big deal, and is depicted with all the urgency and drama of an episode of ER. As a result, much of the movie doesn't even feel like a romantic comedy, despite the intermittent funny lines and situations. Like Terms of Endearment (but without the gobs of Kleenex), it injects humor into a serious situation by using the characters as conduits. Their unique reactions provoke the laughs, and through their interplay they subtly reveal their personalities, viewpoints, and emotions.
The film’s real-life roots work for and against it. On the one hand, knowing we are watching actual (albeit embellished and slightly fictionalized) situations lends the story an engaging authenticity and promotes greater intimacy with the characters. Yet on the other, knowing the two principals survive their ordeal, work out their problems, are now happily married, and wrote a screenplay based on their experiences somewhat dulls suspense. That might seem like a lame gripe, because almost zero romantic comedies don't unite their couples in the end, but The Big Sick does such a good job flipping the genre on its ear, if we didn’t know the backstory, we might really wonder where the film - and the two leads with whom we have become so emotionally invested - are headed.
To its credit, the movie still manages to make us uneasy and worried despite the couple’s predetermined fate, and that’s largely due to the relaxed and genuine performances of the entire cast. It’s tougher than it might seem to play oneself, but Nanjiani tackles the daunting chore with ease, and his comfortable chemistry with the fresh-faced, captivating Kazan makes them an utterly believable couple. The rest of the actors assert themselves well (especially Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff as Kumail's parents), but Romano and Hunter truly steal the show, filing inspired portrayals and enlivening every scene in which they appear.
The Big Sick also wins points for painting a positive - yet still realistic - portrait of Muslim-Americans and examining what it's like to be biologically tied to one culture while living in and assimilating into another. Striking the right balance between the two isn't easy, and Showalter doesn't sugarcoat the struggle. It's tough to be Pakistani in today's America, but one of the film's great strengths is its ability to blur racial and religious lines and focus on the human elements that unite and strengthen us. Divisions will always exist (and many have nothing to do with color or creed), but movies like this one prove we can overcome them if we try hard enough. And, of course, humor is a wonderful healer.
The Big Sick isn't perfect - it runs a tad long and isn't quite as funny as I hoped it would be - but it's still a cut above the bulk of romantic comedies because it doesn't fit squarely into the genre. Yes, it follows the rom-com playbook to a certain degree (it's hard not to), but the script's inherent originality makes the clichés easier to swallow. This is a love story with some teeth and a bit of bite, yet as it wends its way toward its happy conclusion, The Big Sick still infects us with an acute case of the warm fuzzies…and that's not always such a bad affliction.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Big Sick arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. A leaflet containing the code to access the Digital HD Ultraviolet copy is tucked inside the front cover, and a DVD is also included. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for The Wall, Manchester by the Sea, How to Be a Latin Lover, A Ghost Story, and The Glass Castle precede the static menu with music.
Crisp, clean, and vibrant are the adjectives that best describe this sparkling 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Lionsgate. Terrific contrast and clarity enable fine details to grab attention and help promote a greater sense of depth. Grain is completely absent, but the image still exudes a film-like lushness that draws us into the narrative. Bright, well-saturated colors pop off the screen, and rich black levels and natural flesh tones nicely balance the picture. Close-ups highlight facial hairs, creases, and blemishes well, shadow delineation is quite good, and not a single nick, mark, or scratch dots the pristine source material. No banding or crush is present, and no other digital imperfections could be detected. A few scenes sport a slight bit of softness, but it's too minor to detract from the presentation's overall excellence.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track supplies a surprising amount of directional variance for a romantic comedy. Though surround activity isn't particularly frequent and may be subtle, it's still noticeable and provides the film with a greater sense of atmosphere. Stereo separation across the front speakers is also distinct, widening the soundscape and adding more aural interest to the film. An expansive dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows without a hint of distortion, solid bass frequencies supply necessary weight, and the music score by Michael Andrews (as well as isolated soundtrack songs) fills the room with ease. All the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend, and no imperfections distract. Romantic comedies usually feature rather blah tracks, but The Big Sick at least tries to up the ante and succeeds quite well.
A number of breezy supplements round out the disc.
Cast & Filmmaker Commentary - Actor-writer Kumail Nanjiani, his real-life wife and co-writer Emily V. Gordon, producer Barry Mendel, and director Michael Showalter sit down for a lively but not terribly substantive commentary track that was recorded just after the movie premiered. The tone remains jovial throughout - so much so it's often tough to follow and interpret the conversation due to all the dovetailing laughter, interruptions, and interjections. The quartet identifies locations, points out moments of improvisation, notes mistakes, and ponders how various script deletions might have played. They also detail a couple of on-set disagreements, draw attention to little details from their own lives that they slipped into the film, and debate the pros and cons of 9/11 jokes. At one point, the movie's dialogue level increases and begins competing with the commentary, causing a bit of cacophony, but thankfully the balance returns to normal after a few minutes. I usually find multi-person commentaries unfocused and annoying, and this one is no exception, but if you're a huge fan of the film, you might enjoy eavesdropping on this enthusiastic but not very interesting discussion.
Featurette: "A Personal Journey: The Making of The Big Sick" (HD, 15 minutes) - Nanjiani, Gordon , Kazan, Hunter, Romano, director Michael Showalter, and producer Judd Apatow chronicle the film's production and express their affection for the project in this slick featurette. Apatow talks about finding the right balance between comedy and drama, while Nanjiani reveals how difficult it was to confront all the feelings associated with such an important episode in his life. Other topics include the intimate collaboration between Nanjiani and Gordon during the writing process, the mismatched combo of Hunter and Romano, divorcing Kazan's characterization of Emily from the woman herself, and the conscious effort to paint a realistic portrait of a normal Muslim family. Clips from the film and some behind-the-scenes footage enhance the piece.
Featurette: "The Real Story" (HD, 7 minutes) - Nanjiani and Gordon trade good-natured barbs as they recall their rocky romance and reveal how the film occasionally differs from their reality.
2017 SXSW Film Festival Panel (HD, 12 minutes) - Producer Barry Mendel, producer Judd Apatow, writer-producer Emily V. Gordon, and actor-writer Kumail Nanjiani field questions from the audience during this panel discussion at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas on March 16, 2017. The quartet talks about, among other things, developing the script (Gordon charmingly calls the film a "rom-coma"), honestly depicting the Muslim identity (Nanjiani notes the movie was produced before the 2016 presidential election, but some scenes play differently after it), and the thin line between reality and fiction. The jovial tone makes this casual chat more entertaining than more formal Q&As.
"The Big Sick: The Other Stuff" (HD, 4 minutes) - This blooper reel presents some funny flubs, ad libs, abandoned bits, and general lunacy that didn't make it into the finished film.
Deleted Scenes (HD, 10 minutes) - Eight excised scenes don't add anything to the plotline or even supply additional character beats, but they do contain some amusing moments that would have further lightened the movie's mood.
Featurette: "The Bigger Sick: Stick Around for More Laughs" (HD, 10 minutes) - Select members of the film's cast and crew, including Nanjiani, Gordon, Apatow, Romano, and Aidy Bryant, went on a limited stand-up comedy tour to promote The Big Sick, and this backstage pass features interviews, clips from stand-up routines, photos, and plenty of goofy banter.
Hands down the best romantic comedy of 2017 to date, The Big Sick adroitly blends humor and romance with the sober realities of an alarming medical crisis. It's not as funny as I had hoped - and assumed - it would be, but Michael Showalter's very human film foregoes gags and clichés to focus on issues of family, religion, ethnic heritage, and all the building blocks of loving relationships. A smart script and natural performances enhance the appeal of this uplifting true-life tale, and Lionsgate's stellar Blu-ray presentation, featuring excellent video and audio transfers and a healthy spate of supplements, make this disc a slam dunk for those hungering for a fresh and involving date-night flick. Highly recommended.