SXSW Film Review: ‘The Big Sick’ Reinvigorates The Romantic Comedy


When taking a well-worn genre like the romantic comedy, there’s a certain burden of responsibility that these films saddled with such a label have to evolve with the society they depict, appropriately satirizing it, while at the same time remaining sympathetic. What The Big Sick manages to do is examine the culture of dating framed around a blooming romance where tradition clashes with modernity and the complexities of a cultural divide ends up a priority over any one person’s feelings. And that’s before it really gets into the heart of its story.

The script, written by real-life couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, depicts the early days of their relationship, and provides a balanced, even-keeled look from all its characters’ perspective. Along with director Michael Showalter and producers Barry Mendel and Judd Apatow, its credits read like a who’s-who of modern, nuanced, slice-of-life comedy.

Kumail, who plays himself, meets Emily (Zoe Kazan, fictionalized version of Gordon), and while the two go to great lengths to talk one-another out of their increasingly routine late-night rendezvous, they still manage to end up in a relationship. That is, until some of the more traditional aspects of Kumail’s Pakistani upbringing are made known, making it difficult for either one of them to see an actual future together.

Then, just as their relationship sours, the titular Big Sick happens. Emily ends up in the hospital, and with doctors unable to figure out what’s wrong, she ends up put in a medically induced coma, with any real diagnosis becoming increasingly uncertain.

With Emily in a coma, Kumail ends up forming an unlikely friendship with her parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter), despite them knowing everything about their brief romantic relationship — including the fact that it had ended rather badly. As his relationship with her parents evolves, Kumail realizes that a confrontation with his family is all but inevitable, even if he knows how uncertain Emily’s recovery starts to look, to say nothing of how she’ll end up feeling about him if she does bounce back.

By taking the romance itself out of the equation for the second act (and most of the third), The Big Sick allows itself to examine the qualities of a relationship in a much more indirect sense, while telling fully-realized stories of an embattled ex-boyfriend and parents who find themselves increasingly desperate to make the best of a bad situation.

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