Review: ‘The Big Sick’ is so funny that it yanks rom-com genre out of a coma

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Big Sick' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — If “Captain Fantastic” was the most unexpectedly funny movie of last summer, this summer’s title immediately goes to “The Big Sick,” which is not only the most hilarious movie of the year, but also one of the most refreshing, important and heartfelt.

Produced by Judd Apatow, co-writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon base their script on their own unlikely true romance, from the cultural differences that drove them apart, to the medical episode that brought them back together, to the family members caught in between.

Set in present-day Chicago, a Pakistani-American named Kumail (Nanjiani) strives to become a stand-up comedian against the wishes of his immigrant parents, Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), who would rather he become a lawyer. They also pressure him to marry a fellow Muslim, forcing Kumail to hide his new white girlfriend Emily (Zoe Kazan).

The forbidden romance quickly puts a strain on the blossoming relationship, so when Emily suddenly slips into a coma, a regretful Kumail waits night and day by her side at the hospital, sharing awkward moments with Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano).

Director Michael Showalter is no stranger to inspired casting, having penned “Wet Hot American Summer” (2001) for a roster of future stars: Janeane Garofalo, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper and Elizabeth Banks, just to name a few. “The Big Sick” is no different.

Here, we get a breakout film role for Nanjiani, best known for his role as Dinesh on HBO’s “Silicon Valley” (2014). If you’ve never seen that show, you’ll be blown away by his comedic timing, from his anxious stand-up gigs (i.e. “Seinfeld”) to his wisecracking at home (i.e. “Master of None”). Beyond his hilarity, he also mines genuine chemistry with Kazan (“Ruby Sparks”).

Kazan has acting in her blood as the granddaughter of Elia Kazan, who directed Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) and “On the Waterfront” (1954). She is the perfect love interest for 2017, a more natural representation of modern dating than the unattainable pinups of the past. When she grins, it’s mischievous; when she laughs, it’s infectious; when she cries, it’s heartbreaking; and when she ails, it’s utterly sympathetic.

While Kazan and Nanjiani breathe life into the young lovebirds, a quartet of veteran actors provide the traditional parents who squeeze them from both sides. Shroff is a force as the Pakistani mom recruiting “good Muslim girls” to “drop in” at the dinner table, while Kher lends gravitas as the Pakistani father, seeing as he’s a Bollywood legend appearing in his 500th film.

On the flip side, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are absolutely fantastic as Kazan’s concerned parents. After winning an Oscar for “The Piano” (1993), you might have forgotten how funny Hunter can be from such roles as “Broadcast News” (1987). In “The Big Sick,” she melds her southern accent and spitfire attitude, bickering with Romano’s lovable aw-shucks simpleton.

Between both sets of parents, the script blends the culture-clash comedy of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” with the sitcom-style comedy of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Several lines of dialogue will make you laugh so hard that you’ll still be chuckling minutes later, while everyday situations — calling an Uber, using the bathroom — cleverly flip our expectations.

Beneath all the humor, expect a subversive commentary on interracial dating, arranged marriage and religious tradition. When Nanjiani reveals that he only pretends to pray in the basement, it recalls Sidney Poitier’s speech in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967): “You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be!”

If there’s one flaw, it’s that his parents deserve more reconciliation. We see them offer an olive branch to Nanjiani, but we never see them meet Kazan to give their blessing. Instead, we get their real-life wedding pictures during the end credits. This is likely a case of the writers already knowing the real ending, but we the audience don’t know the details, leaving us craving more closure before the cute final scene, which is a happier version of “La La Land.”

All nitpicking aside, this is a truly fantastic movie: fresh, hilarious, romantic, inspiring. If you had Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell’s “The House” circled on your comedy calendar, scratch it in favor of the latest by Poehler’s “Wet Hot” writer Showalter. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, Amazon and Lionsgate scooped it up for release this weekend.

What a smart move. It’s the type of film that will play well with audiences both watching on the big screen or streaming it later on Amazon Prime. My advice: Go see it now with the largest audience possible. It’s so much better to laugh at a comedy with a room full of people.

While laughing in unison, you’ll have an overdue reaction: Who says the romantic comedy is dead?! To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the rom com’s demise are greatly exaggerated. So if you thought the genre was on life support, “The Big Sick” yanks it right out of a coma.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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