Film: Just when you thought the romcom was dead…

Kumail Nanjiani: the big league beckons (Photo by Nicole Rivelli)

The Big Sick
Cert 15, 120 mins, ★★★★

Is cultural tradition a comfort or a trap? Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick is not the first film to ask that question, but it takes an unlikely route – via a hospital ward – to get to an answer. The film, in which the Pakistan-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, is closely based on his real-life romance with his wife, Emily (she co-wrote the script, but is played here by Zoe Kazan).

Kumail is a struggling comedian who grew up in Pakistan and now lives in Chicago. He is honing his comedy club routine, moonlighting as an Uber driver, when he encounters Emily, a white American graduate student as quick with repartee as he is.

Kumail takes her back to a dismal bachelor room with a blow-up mattress on the floor. From this unpromising scenario, something more than a one night stand arises: the possibility of enduring love, despite the efforts of both parties to deny it. As the days wear on, Kumail’s “two-day rule” (he doesn’t see any girl for more than two consecutive days) is soon abandoned, as are Emily’s attempts to shake him off.

Yet there is a reason, as yet undeclared, for Kumail’s “two-day rule”: his family, whom he sees regularly for dinner, firmly expect him to marry a Muslim Pakistani woman. To this end, a string of eligible young women of Pakistani origin are invited to “just drop in” on the family home. When Emily finds this out, however – and understands the implied lack of any real future together – she ends the relationship. Genuine difficulty and sadness – for the couple and also for Kumail’s parents, facing broken expectations – lie beneath the laughs.

The ensuing silence is interrupted by a friend’s news that Emily has fallen seriously ill, and been rushed to hospital. As her condition worsens, Kumail is asked to sign a form to permit a medically induced coma. Thereafter the character of Emily is missing in action for quite some time, as Kumail is compelled to rub along with her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) in the most fraught of circumstances.

The coma – which in other hands could feel like a clunky plot device – actually happened, although the characters of Emily’s parents have been ramped up for comic effect (in the case of Hunter, perhaps a little too much). But as a romcom, a genre that has too often grown stale, this is fresh, witty and warm. The chemistry between Nanjiani and Kazan feels real, and is robust enough to include moments of both characters behaving unattractively. Nanjiani in particular displays a steady charm, simultaneously transmitting both doubt and reassurance. Although he is already known in the US for the HBO series Silicon Valley, I suspect The Big Sick will propel him into the major league.