Kumail Nanjiani is a funny man. When you meet him it turns out he is also kind, inquiring and interesting: the sort of guy you’d wish would write a poignant romantic comedy, a larger-than-life tale in which he would star, taking you along for an emotional ride.
Which he has done. The Big Sick opens this weekend and if you see anything this summer, please let it be this gem.
Movies backed by producer Judd Apatow are often very witty and weirdly real — think Superbad and Bridesmaids. But they are rarely important, paradigm-shifting projects. The Big Sick is. You see, Nanjiani is a Muslim, in reality and in the film. During a time when the words Muslim and Islam conjure up images of hate and destruction, Nanjiani tells a deeply personal story about one Muslim-American young man.
He doesn’t preach. He’s not out to lecture his fellow Americans about their perceived ‘Islamophobia’ — incidentally, a natural fear, it would seem, when Islamist terrorism keeps striking England and Brussels. Without a hint of political-correctness Najiani tells a different Muslim story. It is about the struggles of a child of immigrants who happen to believe in Allah, arranged marriage and praying five times a day. The Indian actors Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff play them with skill and kindness. They make us understand what it might feel like to be torn between the traditions of their past in Pakistan and the modernity their son embraces in the United States.
We witness what they do not see: how their son plays video games when he is supposed to be praying. How he quickly rejects the potential wives his parents line up, and how he chooses to embrace his love for a white, decidedly non-Muslim girl, played with sweet intensity by Zoe Kazan.
What I loved about The Big Sick was not just how nonchalantly it portrays the life of a modern Muslim, the way we see Latinos and Asians all the time. What impressed me most was how this identity struggle served only as one of the subplots. Faith is put in its proper place: not an oppressive, political or public force, but a private issue for Kumail and his parents. Being Muslim, in this film, is quite un-special. Whatever, the film seems to say. Jews, Christians, Mormons: many of us battle the religiosity of older generations. Here, the key story is an age-old and universal one. Boy meets girl, boy screws it up, girl moves on, boy manages to — spoiler alert! — win her back, and heroically so.
In the meantime she gets ill, as the title suggests. Now, Kumail has to manage not only his over-bearing parents as he keeps his ‘American’ life a secret. He also needs to deal with Emily’s mom and dad as they rush to the hospital for their daughter while the weird now-ex-boyfriend — Kumail, that is — keeps hanging around.
The uncomfortable scenes between him and Emily’s parents serve to make you laugh and cry, sometimes simultaneously. In their fear of losing their only daughter, Beth and Terry are played by an unlikely pair of sublime actors, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. The way they fight and laugh together made me wish we would see more parents like them on the screen, combining humanity with comedic timing. Witness Holly Hunter’s Beth quietly touch Kumail’s cheek in a hospital hallway, an improvised gesture of kindness while everyone is terrified of what will happen to Emily.
The result is the best romantic comedy I have seen in years, which the ecstatic audiences at Sundance sensed as well last January. The genre appears to be dissolving into boozy, sexed-up films like Trainwreck and How to Be Single; compared to those The Big Sick is a showcase of witty nuance. No wonder: director Michael Showalter wrote the unjustly ignored Hello, My Name Is Doris. In his hand this new film has an old-school quality, like Sleepless in Seattle and Moonstruck.
The main character’s religious and ethnic identity, to use the word du jour, is just not a thing here. Race and faith barely come up, expect in Kumail’s private battles with his parents.
Nanjiani and Showalter are not out to deny the violence and oppression in the name of Islam, which we see in every terror attack followed by the soothing clichés that ‘not all Muslims are terrorists’ and ill-informed accusations of racism. Instead, they relate the singular experience of a young man from a Muslim family in America today, conveying the universal by being hyper-specific.
The Big Sick shows a split life. Many Muslim boys and other kids of immigrants probably recognize it. But the movie also shows a genuine route for such young men to succeed in the West. For that, there is no better moment than this one, and no better person to quietly show the way than Kumail Najiani in The Big Sick.