Movie Review: The Big Sick (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Our true natures are hard to hide. They find a way of bubbling to the surface, even during trying times. Such is the lesson learned by Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick, a movie about his real-life love story with his wife, Emily Gordon.

Nanjiani plays a version of himself in the movie, which was co-written by Gordon. “Emily” is played onscreen by Zoe Kazan. The film isn’t a strict biopic, as the action takes place in the modern day, and not when the couple met in the mid-2000s.

Kumail and Emily meet at a Chicago comedy club following one of his standup sets. As a busy grad student, she’s only looking for a one-night-stand, but love blossoms anyway. They make an adorable couple who genuinely like one another.

Yet Kumail’s family presents a huge obstacle to their future together, his parents having brought their traditional concepts of marriage with them from Pakistan when they moved to the United States more than a decade earlier. When Kumail’s dad, Azmat (Anupam Kher) refers to a cousin and “that white woman he lives with,” Kumail corrects him: “They’re married.”

Kumail’s mom Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) is so determined to find her son a Pakistani-American bride, she arranges a series of eligible young women to “drop by” when Kumail happens to be home for dinner. Emily’s discovery of the ongoing matchmaking attempts — and Kumail’s refusal to mention their relationship to his parents — crushes her.

Kumail’s unwillingness to be honest with his parents about his future plans doesn’t only weigh on him and hurt Emily. It keeps his parents from being able to accept their son for who he is: a  product of two national cultures.

All the women that Kumail’s mother parades in front of him are victimized by his indecision, as well. He dismisses the idea of arranged marriage, but these women don’t. Meeting them wastes their time and unfairly raises expectations. One woman, Khadija (Vella Lovell) — who herself is quite a catch — calls Kumail out for his self-centeredness. (If there are to be any other movies set in The Big Sick universe, I’d love to see a romantic comedy with Khadija as the main character.)

Kumail’s true nature can’t hide forever, especially not when he’s faced with a crisis. Days after an explosive break-up fight with Emily, she’s hospitalized with a an illness. It falls on Kumail to contact her parents — Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) — who aren’t pleased to meet the man who broke their daughter’s heart. Kumail’s awkward small talk results in an off-color 9/11 joke, because that’s who he is: a comedian.

The affection Nanjiani and Gordon have for each other and their families is evident in the script, delivered lovingly by a dream cast. Updating their story for cinematic purposes allows director Michael Showalter to set a pace that provides room to breathe but never feels slow. Best of all, The Big Sick, is very, very funny.


11 thoughts on “Movie Review: The Big Sick (2017)

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  3. quotepoet

    My main issue with the big sick was the very stereotypical depictions of brown women, like I understand that this his story but as a brown woman, I find these stereotypes to be harmful. I liked everything else in the film but I wish he approached some aspects of the story differently. Btw, I love reading your reviews, they are very accessible and well written! You’re a great reviewer 🙂 keep up the good work!

    1. Kathy

      Thank you so much, quotepoet! I totally agree with you about the frustrating way brown women are depicted in the film. I also understand anyone who feels like they don’t need to see yet another movie about a South Asian man who winds up with a white woman, since those are the only stories (besides Brown Nation) that are being made in the US and Canada at the moment.

  4. Toni Bishop

    I was excited to see that you’ve reviewed this movie, Kathy. I so enjoy reading your pieces. I really enjoyed The Big Sick. I wasn’t particularly up on the film before watching — my husband picked it, and I didn’t really know much. I am a huge Bollywood fan, though my partners in fandom are often Pakistani students, so I really liked this portrait of a second generation immigrant and his world. I don’t think it’s totally fair to criticize the depiction of women, brown or otherwise. Isn’t that the point of fleshing out the characters of the girls who are “dropping by,” especially Khadija? (She is, as you say, a great character.) I also liked the young woman who politely reveals that she does indeed speak Urdu even though she has been raised in the U.S. (As an aside, does Anupam Kher ever age? He does do a great father figure!) I also forgive the film it’s depictions of woman or men, brown or otherwise, since they were so clearly drawn from Kumail’s life. They were individuals, not types. He himself certainly was written and played as man whose penchant for comedy lightened his approach even in tense situations involving ethnic stereotypes. As for the South Asian character ending up with a white woman, though it is heavily implied that Kumail and Emily reunite, and the real life story certainly indicates this, it doesn’t actually happen in the film. (You could argue that the credits make it a certainty, I guess.) The movie, though the romance is central, is really about how to live in two worlds. The inclusion of the prayer sequences tell us that too, don’t you think? Another thing that I liked is that the movie is so family centered. While Kumail’s parents are shown as somewhat disapproving and very traditional, they are given real personalities and are overall warmly treated. Plus the whole screenplay is pretty much a valentine to Emily’s parents, both of whom are lovingly depicted. All of the relationships, and of course the main one, were well written and the cast had great chemistry. I did not think the movie was tight, but that was actually part of its charm.

    1. Kathy

      Thanks for your loyal readership, Toni! To your point about the depiction of women in the movie, many women of color that I follow on social media were offended by that aspect of the film, so I defer to them. As you say, the characters are drawn from people in Kumail’s life, but he changed a number of elements for the sake of the film (such as when they events take place). This was an opportunity to embellish the characters and story in a positive way. For example, it would have been nice for his sister-and-law to have some consequential dialogue, especially since she was played by an actress as talented as Shenaz Treasurywala.

      The other factor in all this is context. I think if The Big Sick came out before all of the other recent movies and TV shows where a brown guy in America or Canada gets together with a white woman — Master of None, Growing Up Smith, Dr. Cabbie, Meet the Patels, etc. — this probably wouldn’t have received as much attention. Fatigue is a huge factor. That’s not something Kumail Nanjiani’s can personally fix, but it is an issue that other writers — and especially producers! — should take note of going forward. I liked this article on the topic by Aditi Natasha Kini.

      And, yes, Anupam looked fantastic!

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