Kumail Nanjiani is a comedian and writer much better known in the United States than in the UK, but he was familiar to me due to his association with my favourite TV series, The X-Files. Nanjiani famously hosted a successful podcast on the subject, The X-Files Files, which partly led him to gaining a guest starring role on a recent episode of the show’s revival. Nanjiani’s love of The X-Files is lightly referenced in The Big Sick, his debut feature as star and co-writer, in which he plays an extension of himself.
To an extent, Nanjiani playing Kumail is akin to Larry David’s extreme persona in Curb Your Enthusiasm or even Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s extensions in The Trip and its sequels, but the difference with The Big Sick is the tone. It’s one of the funniest comedies of the year, without question, but it’s also much sweeter, filled with charm and touching on a multitude of themes about relationships, societal barriers, religion and loss. How it manages to balance these disparate elements is the most impressive factor.
A major reason why perhaps comes down to the naturalism employed by Nanjiani and director Michael Showalter. The production stable of Judd Apatow lies behind the script which Nanjiani wrote with his wife Emily V. Gordon, and the story is theirs. Kumail and Emily (Zoe Kazan) in the movie are the narrative version of the story of Nanjiani and the real-life Emily, which allows for a deeper sense of autobiographical honesty, fused with the kind of laid-back Americana comedy Apatow (when on form) does so well with his movies. The Big Sick, even before making you laugh, makes you feel.
Not that it ever follows the established rules and tropes of romantic comedy, and that’s hugely to its benefit. Nanjiani’s script is a little too self-aware to fall into these kind of traps, following traditional narrative structure of boy meets girl, happy happy, break up, miss each other, race to get back together. Elements of those exist in Kumail & Emily’s story but it’s as much a framing device to explore the cultural complications and difficulties Kumail faces as a Pakistani Muslim in Chicago as it is the inter-cultural relationship between two people wanting to be together.
Some may consider Nanjiani’s portrayal of his traditional Muslim family unsympathetic or patently unfair but their inability to accept Kumail wanting a non-traditional life, one without worshipping Allah (as he can’t bring himself to do) or accepting the constrains of an arranged marriage, but the truth is that it remains a realistic expectation of children amongst many Muslim families. As someone who works on a daily basis with primarily Muslim teenagers, Nanjiani’s portrayal is accurate, though he ensures his family retain plenty of humanity. They just don’t simply accept his life choices.
Again, this is a strength of The Big Sick. Not everything is wrapped up in a neat bow by the end. Possibilities still exist and remain, there is plenty of hope to go around that the fractured relationships portrayed across the movie will be repaired, but the naturalistic realism of the story shines through. Kumail and Emily both undergo life changing, cathartic experiences in different ways (one through serious illness, the other via coming to accept he *won’t* just accept the life being mapped out for him), but the script refuses to simply and conventionally play it’s hand. You become invested in their journeys, Kumail’s in particular.
The key perhaps lies in his dynamic with Emily’s parents, played wonderfully by a laconic Ray Romano and earthy Holly Hunter, who help Kumail frame the feelings he has for Emily while she is out of the picture and conversely their own slightly distant, damaged relationship comes into focus and begins to repair. How Nanjiani bounces off these two actors in particular is one of the highlights of the film, even more potentially than his enjoyably sparky dynamic with Kazan. The Big Sick is full of well observed supporting characters around the main players, who all help Nanjiani provide the funny.
That’s the other key to the success of his film: it’s funny. Genuinely, regularly, laugh out loud funny, and without needing to fall into slapstick comedy or profanity or overwrought gags to make jokes land. All of the comedy comes from character and from naturally evolved ideas; the over-keen Pakistani girl who Kumail’s family try to set him up with, who tries to engender herself by quoting catchphrases from The X-Files; Kumail and Terry, Emily’s father, awkwardly swopping platitudes and jokes about love and infidelity; or as others on social media have observed, the best 9/11 gag yet committed to celluloid.
Nanjiani isn’t afraid to shy away from subjects like 9/11 or the modern conception of Muslims in the context of terrorism, much like he’s unafraid to shine a light on Muslim family expectations which perhaps don’t line up perfectly with the desire to live a Westernised existence. In one well observed scene, while Kumail is doing a set at the comedy club where he performs standup, a hick in the audience shouts “go back to ISIS!”, leading to Hunter’s Beth loudly chewing him out in front of an affronted, progressive audience, none of whom cheer the racist. It’s by turns funny, awkward and powerful, and few films could get away with all three in one scene.
One of the finest comedies and dramas rolled into one of the year, The Big Sick is clever, self-aware, touching, extremely funny and emotional, which often shines a lens into uncomfortable sociological areas while doing so with a natural urbane, relaxed wit and sweet shine which allows it to stand quite unique amongst American comedies of its ilk. It also feels hugely personal to Kumail Nanjiani, both to his style and his own life, which adds a deeper level of credulity to the whole, charming endeavour.
I drew the line when someone said they didn’t like The X-Files though. Let’s not go there.