Big Hearts, Big Laughs in Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon’s cinematic love story, “The Big Sick”

Not everything needs to be a period piece.

On the small screen, both Marc Maron and Pete Holmes brought their recent pasts into present-day so they could have the best of both worlds for their comedic purposes in IFC’s Maron and HBO’s Crashing. Similarly, when Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon set about putting the dramatic first year of their romance on the big screen in The Big Sick, setting it in the present day meant they could get extra joke mileage (so to speak) by making Nanjiani’s onscreen character an Uber driver.

And when your real-life romance has to overcome not only cultural and religious hurdles, but also a medical emergency, you can use all of the extra jokes you can get.

Gordon has joked that The Big Sick is more rom-coma than rom-com.

The more essential truth is that the movie Gordon and Nanjiani co-wrote about themselves is a deeply satisfying, emotional, funny and realistic love story.

That just so happens to hit even more relevant points about America in 2017 about religious tolerance and health care.

Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel had hits as producers with Bridesmaids and Trainwreck, turning Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer into comedy stars (and Apatow brought Holmes’s Crashing to HBO). The Big Sick proves that Nanjiani can be a leading man and not merely the third or fourth supporting jokester, as you’ve previously known him on TV in Silicon Valley, Portlandia, Franklin & Bash, or even Michael and Michael Have Issues. It was on the latter that Nanjiani first worked with Michael Showalter, who directed The Big Sick.

Apatow’s movies traditionally have sought to inject more realism into romantic comedies, even if they’re also sometimes criticized for running too long or still portraying unexpected couples. At two hours, The Big Sick does run a smidge longer than necessary (a very insidery subplot about the “Montreal Comedy Festival” includes jokes and developments that could have been cut without sacrificing the emotional weight of the final auditions, even if we get to see how Bo Burnham would act onstage as a young Maron).

But the heart of the story is based in truth, and centered with so much heart it’ll grab you and not let go.

Gordon did meet Nanjiani after heckling him at a stand-up show in Chicago over a decade ago, their relationship did get rocky because Nanjiani feared telling his Muslim parents about her, and she did fall into a coma in the first year of their dating.

And if you know Nanjiani from either of his two podcasts, then the X-Files and video game references ring true, too.

In real life, they moved to New York City together in 2007. I’d first seen Nanjiani perform earlier that year in a Montreal audition showcase in Manhattan which he didn’t get (for not-so obvious reasons), but he was so great that I immediately looked him up on MySpace and befriended him. That Christmas, I got a Flip cam (remember Flip cams?!), and just after New Year’s in 2008, I shot some footage on a subway platform with Nanjiani, Gordon and their fellow Chicago transplant comedian Joselyn Hughes while we waited to head home to Brooklyn. In it, Hughes points out that while Gordon is a therapist, she’s actually very funny and should be writing jokes, too. That she should write the screenplay for The Big Sick only makes perfect sense now.

Zoe Kazan fully inhabits the role of playing Emily, while all of the comedians shine in their small roles, with Burnham and Aidy Bryant as comedians on the come up, Kurt Braunohler as Nanjiani’s more hapless comedian and roommate, David Alan Grier as the house MC, and that’s Ed Herbstman (from “The Mantzouaks Brothers” improv duo) as the even more stalled veteran local comic in Chicago (although Brooklyn’s Littlefield subs in for whatever Chicago comedy club it’s supposed to be).

The casting of Gordon’s and Nanjiani’s families is even more paramount to how well The Big Sick should play to audiences everywhere.

Holly Hunter elevates everyone around her as Gordon’s mom, and proves herself just as capable of getting laughs as Nanjiani or Ray Romano, who plays Gordon’s father and continues to turn in amazingly subtle performances in dramatic roles. Nanjiani’s Pakistani Muslim family may have cast mostly Indian actors, although how could you go wrong with a Bollywood star such as Anupam Kher (Bend it Like Beckham, Silver Linings Playbook). Vella Lovell (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), as one of Nanjiani’s mother’s chosen women for an arranged marriage, delivers a devastating take-down of Nanjiani’s childish behavior, too.

Of course, there’s a happy ending in the movie. But also in real life.

This is Nanjiani and Gordon at Sundance this January, where The Big Sick premiered and got bought for distribution by Amazon Studios and Lionsgate.


The Big Sick opens in NYC and LA on June 23, select cities June 30, and everywhere else in July.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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