The Big Sick: All the ingredients, but half-baked

The story's fantastic, but is it a romantic comedy?

The Big Sick

Two and a half of five stars.


Directed by Michael Showalter.

Starring  ,   and Ray Romano.

Opens wide July 7.

click to enlarge Zoe Kazan as Emily and Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail in The Big Sick. - Nicole Rivelli
Nicole Rivelli
Zoe Kazan as Emily and Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail in The Big Sick.

In 20 years, if I'm mindlessly watching TV and I'm flipping through the channels and The Big Sick comes on cable, I'll probably stop channel-surfing for a while.

That's assuming a few things: one, that cable TV still exists, two, that I've decided to start paying for cable TV, and three, that this movie is going to age well. I have my doubts about all three.

The Big Sick had promise, and I really, really wanted to like it. I wanted to laugh at it. And I did, sort of. I laughed at its funniest moments — all but one of which were in the trailer — but kept waiting for more. No, not more meaning — the film is overflowing with social and religious commentary — more comedy.

To be fair, my friend Thelma really enjoyed it, as have most of the critics, apparently. My disappointment is clearly the minority opinion. And, although many people consider rom-coms fluff, I tend to judge them more critically than I do any other genre of film.

If you, like me, head to the theater expecting a comedy on par with When Harry Met Sally, Moonstruck, His Girl Friday or Pillow Talk, you're going to leave happier with your popcorn than you’ll be with The Big Sick. It's based on a true story — a Pakistani stand-up comedian (Kumail Nanjiani, who plays himself) falls in love with a white grad student (Emily V. Gordon, played by Zoe Kazan) and neglects to mention he can never marry her because his family insists on a traditional Pakistani arranged marriage, whereupon she breaks up with him. Shortly thereafter, she gets sick and ends up in a medically-induced coma. While she's in the coma, Nanjiani watches over her and wins over her parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), who initially have no use for the man who broke their daughter's heart.

It's funnier than it sounds, but here's the thing: Based-on-a-true-story stories are hard to write from an autobiographical standpoint. Comedy is also the hardest genre to write. Put those two together and I'm amazed the movie is as funny as it is. Which made me wonder how many based-on-a-true-story comedies I've seen and liked, and turns out, precious few. The closest I came was A League of Their Own, because one of the four writers was the son of a "women's leaguer" (as they were called). And that movie had Penny Marshall directing and starred Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell, Ann Cusack and Jon Lovitz, and it still doesn't rank in my top 20 films. The Big Sick is a touching story, and it's a well-told story — but having writers not so married to having it closely follow their story would have probably made it much funnier.

And it is a good story, one worthy of being told. The film packs a lot of issues into a tight space: Religion, cultural differences, the power of family, the reality of standup comedy (along with the requisite "funny fat girl"), Muslimophobia and infidelity — and then you throw in a major illness and wrap it all in a rom-com bow.

It fell down for me when Emily woke up from her coma (I would tell you that's a spoiler alert, but if she didn't wake up I'm almost positive the studio wouldn't have marketed this as a rom-com — almost). The last time we see her before she gets incredibly ill, she's sobbing because Kumail has shattered her heart, so of course the audience doesn't expect her to wake up and have great feelings about the guy, but their path from that moment until the traditional happy ending doesn't have the rhythm you crave. We've spent half the movie up until now watching them fall in love and half watching Kumail win over her parents and devote his life to Emily, and we deserve to have a more dramatic happy ending than we get — and it takes too long to get there. By the time Emily comes around, I'd actually started to think she didn't deserve him, which I'm positive is not the emotion the studio wanted to evoke.

Bottom line? All four of the leads play their parts superbly (note to those of you who can't stand Ray Romano: He's not nearly as Romano-esque here), the film raises a lot of heavy issues that need raising, and the story deserves to be told.

As I said, it's funnier than it sounds. But it's not really funny enough.

Contact Cathy Salustri at [email protected].

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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