Getting married has never been easy. But when you’re an American-raised son of an immigrant Pakistani family, well, it’s a lot harder.
Take Kumail. This thirtyish Uber driver/stand-up comic wouldn’t mind settling down. But not with any of the steady stream of eligible Pakistani women his fiercely traditional parents—especially his mother—keep trying to set him up with.
No, Kumail, despite his heritage, has been deeply shaped by American culture. Instead of going to law school like his parents want, he haunts Chicago comedy clubs. Instead of dutifully saying his Muslim prayers like his parents want, he secretly plays video games. Instead of settling down with a nice Pakistani girl like his parents want, Kumail lives in a detritus-strewn apartment with fellow singleton and would-be comic Chris.
In short, Kumail—unlike his dutiful older brother, Naveed—is a disappointment to his parents, who sacrificed everything to emigrate from Pakistan to America and give their boys the best opportunities possible.
Despite Kumail’s fraught relationship with his cultural identity, however, that ethnic and religious heritage provides ready-made fodder for his stand-up routine. When he half-jokingly begins his routine one night by asking, “Any Pakistanis in the house?” a blonde American gives a playful, enthusiastic whoop in response.
Emily isn’t Pakistani. But she is intrigued by Kumail. And he by her. By evening’s end, they end up in bed together.
Both insist they have no interest in a real relationship. After all, Kumail’s nascent comedy career is, er, unpredictable. And Emily, a master’s student in psychology at the University of Chicago, needs to focus on her studies.
But the sex just keeps happening. Soon, so does a real relationship—one that’s badly undermined by the fact that should Kumail go public about his romance with an American girl, his parents will likely literally disown him.
That obstacle seems insurmountable. But even as Kumail and Emily’s relationship collapses, so does Emily’s health. A strange, pernicious lung infection spreads ominously, and Kumail’s the only nearby “family” member who can authorize doctors to put Emily in a medically induced coma to stabilize her.
Until her parents, Terry and Beth, arrive, that is.
As various conditions worsen—Emily’s health, the health of Kumail’s relationship with his parents—something unexpected happens: Kumail bonds deeply with Terry and Beth.
It’s not clear Emily’s ever going to wake up. But if she does, she’ll be forced to deal with the fact that her parents have practically adopted the guy she just broke up with.
There’s a temptation to think that everything in life should be cut and dried, black and white. Most of the time, though, we muddle through messiness and complexity. The Big Sick is a tender story about dealing with life as it is, in all that complexity, especially in the context of our closest family connections.
Kumail’s parents absolutely want the best for him, repeatedly trying to make a marital match in the traditional Pakistani manner. The film depicts that traditionalism sympathetically, even as it helps us see that Kumail’s experience in America has made it difficult for him to embrace those ways. And so we see the tension between Kumail’s desire to honor his parents and the reality that he struggles deeply to do so.
Kumail’s choices eventually lead to a significant rupture with his parents. But despite heated words and pronouncements about Kumail’s status in the family, his parents both try (in their own ways) to keep lines of communication open.
Emily’s parents, meanwhile, are about as different as they can be from Kumail’s. They have their own problems (namely, fighting over the kind of care their daughter should receive), and it’s clear that conflict is very much a part of their relationship. Amid those tensions and the questions about whether Emily will live or not, Kumail and Terry develop an almost father-son relationship. Beth doesn’t warm to Kumail nearly as quickly. But she, too, eventually comes around, encouraging Kumail not to give up hope in his relationship with Emily.
As for Kumail and Emily, their relationship begins primarily as a sexual one. But it quickly becomes something much deeper. Kumail makes mistakes that prompt Emily to question his commitment, but as she lies unconscious in the hospital, he gradually realizes how deeply he loves her. Similarly, it’s also clear how devoted Emily’s parents are to her as they (along with Kumail) spent days by her side.
Kumail, to his credit, apologizes multiple times to Emily, to his parents, and to Terry and Beth for ways that he hasn’t told them the truth.
Verbal references are made to Islam throughout the film. Some involve Kumail’s mother talking about her desire for her son to be a “good Muslim.” At one point, she tells him to go downstairs and pray on the prayer rug in the basement. Kumail appears to obey, but sets a five-minute alarm on his phone and surfs the internet instead of praying.
Eventually he tells his parents that he hasn’t actually prayed in years, and that he doesn’t know what he believes. “Islam has been good for you, and it has made you better people,” he says. “But I don’t know what I believe. I just need to figure it out on my own.”
We repeatedly see a small Buddha fountain in a hospital chapel. The soundtrack includes Beck’s 1996 song “Devil’s Haircut.”
Kumail and Emily waste little time before hooking up (in Kumail’s apartment) the first time. We see them kissing passionately, but then the camera cuts away to a post-coital scene in bed. (He’s shirtless, but she’s still got a top on.) When he suggests having sex again, she jokingly says she never has sex twice on the first date.
The couple is shown in bed several other times (we also see Kumail in bed with another woman, whose shoulders and negligee are visible), but what we see of their physical relationship never goes beyond kissing. In fact, after one early encounter, Emily puts her clothes on under a blanket because she’s not comfortable with having Kumail see her unclothed at that point.
We hear crude quips about a woman’s breasts, manual stimulation, oral sex, honesty after sex and someone’s penis size. The punchline of a bad joke involves an animal’s genitals. There’s also a serious discussion about one character’s infidelity. We hear a repeated joke about whether someone is good in bed. A doctor asks Kumail if there’s any chance that Emily could have HIV. (She doesn’t.)
Kumail profanely loses his temper and knocks over a garbage can in a fast-food drive-through after a new employee refuses to put four slices of cheese on the hamburger Kumail orders.
Beth profanely loses her temper and tries to attack a bigoted heckler at one of Kumail’s shows.
About 60 f-words, including one use with “mother.” A dozen or so s-words. God’s name is misused nearly 20 times, including two pairings with “d–n.” Jesus name is misused clearly once, and perhaps in a muffled way a second time. We hear “a–hole” four times, and “b–ch,” “pr–k” and “d–k” once each.
Characters drink a variety of alcoholic beverages (beer, wine, martinis, whiskey) throughout the film. Kumail and Emily have several shots before they go back to his place for the first time. Emily later reveals that she used to drink “a lot.” Elsewhere, Beth definitely seems as if she’s feeling the effects of multiple glasses of wine. As Kumail and Terry talk about the merits of different kinds of wine, Beth chimes in, “I like wine because of the buzz”—something it’s clear she’s currently experiencing.
There’s speculation that a comedian at a club is doing cocaine (before his performances) behind a closed door. Kumail’s comedy sketch touches on the drug known as “cheese,” a blend of Tylenol and heroin, he says. Kumail’s roommate, Chris, says he once got kicked out of the house as a teen for smoking marijuana.
Kumail has a hard time telling the truth. It’s not because he’s naturally a deceptive person, but rather because the consequences of telling the truth have such significant impacts on his life. That said, using deception to hide who he really is—especially with his parents—has become a way of life to him.
Kumail’s father says he hacked a relative’s Facebook account to find out what was really going on with him romantically. There are several jokes about ISIS, some made by Kumail, one made by a racist white guy in the audience at one of his stand-up routines. There’s also a verbal gag about someone desperately needing to go to the bathroom in which we hear the word “dookie.”
In some ways, The Big Sick is a pretty typical romantic comedy. We have the obligatory meet-cute, obligatory make-out scenes, an obligatory break up and obligatory dramatic tension about whether the couple is going to get back together again.
In other ways, The Big Sick veers wildly from that well-established formula. Perhaps that’s because the story is loosely based on actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani’s real relationship with (co-screenwriter) Emily V. Gordon—including Emily actually being in a coma for eight days in real life.
That dramatic event’s depiction in this movie, paired with the tension between Kumail and his parents and Emily’s parents, sets The Big Sick apart as a rom-com of a different kind. There’s more going on here than just romantic tension. Indeed, the film delves into themes of racial and ethnic identity, the reality of loss and death, and the importance of family relationships—even when those relationships are a mess.
There’s a lot of mess in this movie—both in Kumail’s life and in the film’s content itself. The Big Sick’s willingness to wade into the complexities of love and family make it surprisingly compelling. But this rom-com also wades into profanity and sexual innuendo, too, creating a conundrum for would-be viewers who might otherwise have enjoyed the nontraditional love story The Big Sick wants to tell.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.