‘The Big Sick,’ a Race Relations Romcom, Is Sundance’s First Big Hit

‘Silicon Valley’ star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon’s romcom about their unusual love story took Sundance crowds by storm. But how much of it is festival hype?

Sundance Film Festival

The Big Sick is an indie romantic comedy. It’s a Pakistani-American comedy, a coma comedy, a race relations comedy, and has a scene in which Holly Hunter gets into a bar fight.

With a little something for everyone—especially for Holly Hunter fans—it’s no wonder that the film, directed by Michael Showalter (of Wet Hot American Summer fame and, lately, acclaim for helming Hello, My Name Is Doris and co-writing Search Party) and written by Silicon Valley's Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, is the 2017 Sundance Film Festival's first big hit.

After a bidding war that went into Saturday night, the film sold to Amazon Studios for $12 million, making it one of the biggest deals in Sundance history.

The film, albeit in that fictionalized Hollywood way, chronicles the beginnings of Nanjiani and Gordon’s real-life romance, which thanks to the couple’s (now-defunct) podcast and the fact that Nanjiani was mentored by producer Judd Apatow on the project, arrived in Park City with loud advance buzz.

Nanjiani plays a movie version of himself—a struggling stand-up comic in Chicago polishing his act, both in terms of his comedy and the farce he participates in to appease his Pakistani family. They sacrificed so that he could grow up in America, and all they want in return is for him to be a good Muslim man, become a lawyer, and marry a nice Pakistani woman.

Instead, he hits on a spunky blonde girl he meets after one of his stand-up shows, Emily (played by Zoe Kazan). They fall for each other, in the kind of enchanted stupor that would have you rolling your eyes at how she embodies every manic pixie dream girl trope were she not based on a real person, and brought to crackling, nuanced life by a phenomenal performance from Kazan.

It’s all so lovely and triumphant, with Nanjiani’s wry humor and delivery charming the pants off everyone, Emily included. The film feels very Apatow-ian, but benefits immensely from Nanjiani’s point of view. Born in Pakistan himself, it’s an entirely new voice for the Apatow brand, one that stems from racial identity instead of stoned white privilege.

That, and the movie may contain the best 9/11 joke that has been committed to film.

Meanwhile Kumail’s Pakistani family steals every last dinner scene, his mother constantly inviting over eligible women to meet and hopefully marry her son.

When it comes to light that Kumail hasn’t told his parents about Emily because they would disown him, the couple has one of those deathly blowups that destroys their relationship. Days later, Emily is in a hospital bed in a medically induced coma, fighting off a mysterious disease and at risk of dying. Kumail? Full of regret.

It’s then that Holly Hunter and Ray Romano enter as Emily’s parents, at first pissed at Kumail for breaking their daughter’s heart right before her body breaks, too, but then ultimately won over by his sincere devotion to her while she lay in a coma.

Hunter is a spitfire here playing the wounded mom, angry at the injustice of the world and brittle at the thought of losing her daughter—baking soda emotions to her vinegar, steely personality that cause her every feeling to bubble out of her uncontrollably. It’s a mess, and a riveting one.

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Ray Romano is a revelation here, too, in the way that Ray Romano has been a revelation in essentially every acting gig he’s had since his CBS sitcom (Men of a Certain Age, Parenthood, Vinyl) ended.

It’s when they arrive, too, that the film becomes about something entirely different. Suddenly you realize that this is a story about parents: how we relate to them or rebel against them, and how they define us as much as we reshape them.

Emily’s parents fall in love with Kumail, which is awkward for Emily, who is in a coma through his redemption arc and, for all intents and purposes, still furious at him. And Kumail, realizing that his fear of disappointing his parents may have cost him true love, must confront his mother and father about how the tension between growing up American while trying to appease their desire for Pakistani traditions wasn’t just difficult—it may have destroyed him.

And, because all of this is happening while sweet Zoe Kazan lies in a hospital bed pale from a coma, you cry. A lot. And thus you forgive the abrupt maudlin shift in tone and Nanjiani’s struggle to nail or find real subtlety in the big dramatic scenes.

In many ways, the film is insufferably Sundance-y, and can feel like a chore because of it.

It’s a romcom featuring an unlikely couple who overcome the odds and their respective quirky cuteness to fall in love. But in Nanjiani and Gordon’s extremely personal voice, it stands out as incredibly unique in the genre, bathed in the authentic hilarity and struggle of a Pakistani immigrant family that lights up the screen, as well as the emotion of a love not tested by the prospect of death, but sparked because of it.

Its first two Sundance screenings played to deafening laughter, drowning out subsequent lines in the movie, and audible sobs from the packed audience—making it the first, “Have you seen….?” film of the 2017 festival.

But then again, as seems to always be the case, the claustrophobic pack mentality of film festivals tends to generate outsized hype and lavish praise for films that, when finally seen by the public, will play 20 percent less raucously than it did at festival premieres.

That happens out of Park City, especially. Maybe it’s the altitude that makes you laugh louder and cry harder, explaining why there are far more stories about films selling for astronomical amounts of money and eventually flopping before audiences lately than there are those legendary Sundance success stories.

This is a film that is very much a product of the three men who had a part in creating it: Nanjiani, Showalter, and Apatow. Nanjiani’s wry voice and culturally specific observations about the world infiltrate the entire film, as does Showalter’s fine-tuned ability to depict connection and intimacy in a crowd-pleasing manner.

Speaking of crowd-pleasing, Apatow’s Midas touch has a hand in that, but also in so many other elements of its films—specifically the fact that it, like most Apatow productions, runs about 30-40 minutes longer than it needs to and has a maddening number of false endings.

Is it a film that will live up to the rampant enthusiasm that festivals like these tend to generate? We’re almost positive it won’t. But the honesty, the humor, and the heart that explodes so earnestly from each scene—even if it drags on—make the film irresistible. Given how cravenly we need that now, it’s no wonder The Big Sick healed a little bit of Sundance.