There’s no question that the romantic comedy has largely disappeared in the last decade or so, fizzling out around the same time that superhero/comic book movies started making their return. Coincidence? Maybe.
Regardless, after dominating the 80s and 90s, rom-coms are hard to come by anymore. Sure we get the occasional Trainwreck or Crazy, Stupid, Love.—but then again, those are the only two major-studio rom-com features I can think of from the past five or six years.
And then along comes The Big Sick, making you realize how much the world needs romantic comedies and how, if they’re done well, they can be among the more enjoyable of movie-going experiences.
The autobiographical meet-cute story of how real-life comedian Kumail Nanjiani got together with his future wife Emily and then lost her for a few weeks because of his lies, and also because she was put into a medically-induced coma to fight a nasty lung infection, The Big Sick is anything but traditional. But it takes all the things you want in a traditional rom-com and tweaks them just enough to become one of the smarter and funnier films so far this year.
Nanjiani plays himself—by day he’s a Pakistani living in Chicago and struggling with the prospect of a traditional arranged marriage. By night he’s a struggling stand-up comedian. After being sorta-heckled during a set by psychology grad student Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), they meet and chat. And despite her insistence that she’s not looking to date anyone at the moment, we all know where this is headed (and not just because the real-life Kumail and Emily celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary a few weeks ago); we know because The Big Sickfollows the ol’ rom-com formula. But since it does so with a cracker-jack script and real, honest performances from Nanjiani and Kazan, that the movie ends up feeling as fresh and original as When Harry Met Sally did back in a 1989.
A few months into their relationship, Kumail is falling for Emily, but he still hasn’t told his ultra-traditional parents about the white girl he’s dating, and he also keeps ducking Emily’s attempts to have him meet her folks. Emily eventually figures out what’s going on and ends the relationship. And then she gets sick.
A severe lung infection forces doctors to induce a coma, and Kumail ends up being the guy to call her parents with the news. Enter Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Beth and Terry Gardner. Before her coma, Emily had been telling her parents all about Kumail and his lies, so they barely give him the time of day when he shows up at the hospital to be by his (ex-) girlfriend’s side.
Eventually the frost begins to thaw, particularly with Terry, but then Kumail still has his own family to deal with.
The Big Sick, which Kumail co-wrote with the real Emily (who is a successful TV writer), is as on-point and refreshing as they come. At times heartbreaking and at other time hilarious, it never feels forced. It tackles everything from prejudice to religion but never loses sight of the sweet and honest story at its core.
Director Michael Showalter (TV’s The State) gets top-shelf performances from the entire cast, including Hunter and Romano who almost steal the show themselves. Kazan, likewise, picks right up where she left off in the 2013’s What If, a darling little indie rom-com (apparently indie ones are okay) that no one saw; she’s a revelation, and The Big Sick could finally help her get her due.
Hopefully romantic comedies can also get their due and start their long-awaited (at least by me) comeback. Heck, there’s plenty of space now that moviegoers have wisely and definitively proven that the silly, debauchery-fueled comedy is no longer appealing. It’s high-time for studios get back to having a little heart.