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.

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