We wonder how many times real-life couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon have been told their romance should be made into a movie.
We can imagine all the instances in which they’ve been asked how they first met, nervously chuckling as they warn their audience that they’re in for a long story.
The two have been married for 10 years, and now that The Big Sick, an autobiographical account of the early days of their relationship, has been released, we ponder what took them so long to get their story onto the big screen. It’s a delight. Produced by Judd Apatow, whom as of late has mostly been utilizing his name to help amplify smaller comedic voices (Amy Schumer in 2015’s Trainwreck, The Lonely Island in 2016’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) rather than his own, the film is a standout of 2017. An atypical romantic comedy as wry as it is affecting and intimate, it’s a thorough crowd-pleaser that never loses sight of its humanity.
Laughs are steady and so are those little cheer-inducing moments we’ve come to take a liking to in the rom-com genre. But the focal characters are not Hugh Grant (cheekily referenced in the movie) nor Julia Roberts going through the motions of a glittery courtship. They’re people of the everyday, young, hungry, and used to struggling.
That the romance we’re witnessing is based in reality magnifies the appeal. The movie travels back to the days when Nanjiani and Gordon first met (though the film is set in 2016 rather than the mid-2000s). Nanjiani plays a fictionalized version of himself, and Gordon, whose last name is changed to Gardner, is portrayed by the appealing Zoe Kazan. Both based in Chicago, Nanjiani is a penniless Uber driver trying to finagle his way into the comedy world; Gardner is a grad student intending to shrink heads as soon as her schooling’s finished.
Their meet-cute isn’t exactly cute, though. Nanjiani is in the midst of his stand-up act when Gardner sarcastically woo-hoo’s a rhetorical question asked during his set. He lets it slide in the moment, but follows up with her at the venue’s bar to remind her that any vocalization during a comedian’s routine, no matter its tone, is a heckle.
The reprimanding goes from stern to flirtatious with hardly a beat missed, however. Sparks fly, with Nanjiani incapable of resisting Gardner’s smile, Gardner incapable of resisting Nanjiani’s wily sense of humor. Before long they’re back at Nanjiani’s apartment for what’s presumably going to be a one-night stand. Neither is looking for a relationship.
But when Gardner calls an Uber moments after their roll in the hay, Nanjiani is coincidentally chosen as her driver. And in that period are they forced to confront their attraction to one another. Predictably, it takes only a couple weeks for the pair to start seriously dating, contemplating marriage at a time when most duos are still deciding if they actually like the person they’ve been sleeping next to.
Since Nanjiani comes from a strict Pakistani Muslim family who would disown him if discovered he’s dating a white woman, though, troubles arise when Gardner discovers she hasn’t been brought up to his family in their many months of dating. So the relationship ends, even though it’s clear that the spat is probably going to be a temporary one.
But before they can piece their relationship back together, Nanjiani gets a call from Gardner’s roommate, who worriedly informs him that her friend has been taken to the emergency room. A dangerous infection has somehow made its way into Gardner’s lungs, and upon Nanjiani’s arrival at the hospital do doctors announce that Gardner needs to be placed into a medically-induced coma. Nanjiani can hardly process what’s happening in front of him.
He calls his ex’s parents in a panic. They aren’t happy to see him: their daughter told them everything he put her through. But Nanjiani still cares about her, and such makes him stick around as the hospital tries to figure out what’s wrong with Gardner. As the days pass, Nanjiani starts building a relationship with the elder Gardners (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), and that, along with his increasing worry that things will not actually be all right in the end, causes him to realize that the breakup was a mistake. Imagining a life without Gardner is unthinkable.
That the real Mr. and Mrs. Nanjiani would be so willing to share their story with such detail heightens our connection to the plot. Scarcely an ugly moment, however fictionalized it is, is not spared. Because we’re so used to watching romantic comedy couples jump through hoops just to reach the finish line that is the foreseeably happy ending, we appreciate that frankness. Of course, Nanjiani and Gordon did have to jump through hoops, but not because a screenwriter had to make their relationship interesting for a couple hours. Rom-com convolution really happened to them. And yet it’s a romantic comedy that doesn’t play like a romantic comedy — it unfolds like the human comedy life is.
The cast’s magnificence has a lot to do with The Big Sick’s winning us over, too: we cherish these characters. Nanjiani and Kazan have a sparkling rapport that makes the unthinkable event at the center of the film hurt all the more. (Nanjiani especially stands out in the scenes that see him dropping his wit and his self-deprecation for total emotional vulnerability.) Hunter and Romano are wonderful as the comprehensively freaked-out parents, a spitfire and an aging sitcom dad of the real world, respectively. And as Nanjiani’s parents, Anupam Kher (a Bollywood bigwig) and Zenobia Shroff (a theater mainstay) are lived-in and totally charming. Supporting players Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant, portraying Nanjiani’s best friends, spew wicked one-liners beautifully. We’re smitten when in the company of these people, and such makes The Big Sick the sort of movie you want to hug.
Like a lot of Apatow productions, the longer-than-necessary running time causes the movie to lose some of its hold over us. Once Gardner awakens from the coma, for instance, the film takes a little too long to get to its final destination. But that doesn’t matter. When the ensemble’s this fine and the writing’s this deliciously funny (and emotional when need be), imperfection signifies heart. Fortunately, The Big Sick has plenty.