The Big Sick

A Romeo & Juliet tale for the modern age, except that our star-crossed lovers come from clashing cultures, not warring families, and there’s no homicidal violence albeit there are some good jokes about terrorism. Seriously. It’s a rom-com after all.

Kumail Nanjiani is the younger son of a traditional Pakistani muslim family that seems to be doing OK since immigrating to America. He loves his family but is following his own path on religion and career. He’s trying to make it as a stand-up comedian and at one of his regular gigs he meets WASPY Emily. They ‘hook up’ for the night, but agree to make it a one-night stand because she’s too busy with her studies for a relationship and he’s more or less reconciled to an arranged marriage with one of the Pakistani girls his mother keeps bringing home for him to meet. But he and Emily keep seeing each other and come to like each other more and more.

Matters come to a head when one day she finds the box in which he tosses the photos of all his mother’s bridal candidates. She gets all cross, breaks it off and storms out, but before they can uncouple properly she gets suddenly very sick and he is briefly the only responsible adult who can authorise treatment. When the parents turn up he’s still entangled and of course, beginning to realise how much he loves her.

Kumail plays himself in a story he has said is 60% autobiographical. He and Emily Gordon, now his wife, co-wrote the script, but another actress plays her. I’m hoping for his sake that the 40% made up bit has to do with Emily, because as played by Zoe Kazan she’s not a very appealing love object. Number one, she’s not as physically attractive as the real Emily and has a horrible croaky voice; two, the grudge she holds against him over the photos is totally unreasonable considering it was she who insisted on the casual nature of the relationship in the first place and three, at least one of the Pakistani girls is so beautiful, smart and mature that you wonder why he didn’t marry this lovely kindred spirit instead.

The real Emily Gordon with husband Kumail Nanjiani

Kumail’s portrayal of family dynamics is much more believable and authentic. When they pressure him to do his prayers and choose a wife and give up his foolish comedy career, he asks in return why they came to America if they are not prepared to accept its way of life. But he pokes fun at his family in the same affectionate, tolerant way he pokes fun at the American people who often say ignorant and foolish things about people who look like him.

Sample joke: he and his heavily bearded older brother are discussing family business in a cafe. At one point their raised voices ring out and the Anglos at the next table look up disapprovingly. In the awkward shoosh that follows Kumail looks at them and says ‘It’s OK, we hate terrorists’.

Later, as Emily’s father begins to warm to Kumail he sheepishly confesses he’s always wanted to ask a muslim what he thinks of 9/11. Says Kumail: ‘It was terrible. We lost 19 of our best men’. But before the father can digest the implications of this, he adds: ‘only joking’.

Which was probably wise, considering it IS rather soon!

This review was first published on Facebook in August 2017