It’s been a decade since Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up was released. And in that decade, the template of Apatow’s romantic-comedy formula has seeped into every imaginable cultural sphere. If it’s raunchy yet observed from a squeaky-clean white, heteronormative, and culturally unspecific place then it’s likely a product of Apatow’s frequently replicated, though rarely (convincingly) reproduced worldview. The Big Sick, which is produced by Judd Apatow, is an intriguing true story from Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. It’s a story filled with specific cultural and personal details that resists the narrow and jejune blueprint proliferated by Apatow and Co. Or one would have hoped.
Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a Chicago-based comedian moonlighting (daylighting?) as an Uber driver. Following a show, he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan), a University of Chicago grad student, where the two quickly hit it off. They dispense with the witticisms at a rapid clip and it’s hard not to fall for the couple as their affectionate warmth feels genuine. Unfortunately, their future is uncertain given Kumail’s heritage, as his Pakistani family is actively seeking a woman for him to marry. Kumail keeps this hidden from Emily until she discovers a cigar box filled with headshots of his numerous prospective suitresses. They separate, until Kumail is notified that Emily has been hospitalized and induced into a coma.
The finer details of The Big Sick – Kumail’s cultural conflict, Emily’s reticence to pursue a relationship, the couple’s charming repartee – are keenly observed and authentic. Kazan is especially notable, submitting a performance that within a limited window conveys a greater sense of agency than any and all Apatow women that preceded her. During a particularly delightful scene, Kumail attempts to show Emily one his favorite films, watching her watching the film; she quips that she just loves having her taste tested. It’s the kind of sly insight that makes Emily so endearing as someone that resists being reduced to a trope or cliché.
Yet it’s at around the halfway point, where Emily’s sickness mutes her into a passive presence, that The Big Sick succumbs to formula. There are more sequences involving Kumail’s comedy troupe, in indistinguishable exchanges that could’ve been replicated in Funny People or Obvious Child or Don’t Think Twice or any film about comedians. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter enter the narrative as Emily’s parents and while their presence as dramatic figures are convincing, they’re so frequently caricatured and reduced as naïve comic entities. The film’s dramatic and comic beats become more apparent as well, with Kumail’s audition for a comedy festival devolving into an open mic meltdown cliché that has apparently become a staple of the comedian subgenre. Compounded by Michael Showalter’s, shall we say, disinterested directorial presence, the film can’t help feeling like every other Apatow film as it eventually submits into one.
But there are still moments in The Big Sick that resist that temptation. Kumail’s final plea to his family, refusing to be ghosted by his mother following his confession that has fallen for an American, is a potent sequence that provides a measure of specificity that the film had been lacking in its second half. And there’s no denying that the film’s City Lights moment is beautifully realized, if only for Kazan’s disarming radiance. The film may be in a constant struggle between being Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick and Judd Apatow and Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick, but the most lasting impression is that this film belongs to Zoe Kazan.