It’s hard enough finding someone to love — getting along with that person’s parents as well may be too much to ask. The anxiety of making a good impression with your partner’s mom and dad has been mined for comedy in any number of films like Meet the Parents and Why Him? But The Big Sick, one of the breakout hits of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, flips the concept on its head: What if the first time you met your girlfriend’s parents, they already disliked you — and your girlfriend wasn’t around to help because she was in a coma?
The Big Sick was written by Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani alongside his wife Emily V. Gordon. Based directly on the rocky early days of their relationship before they got married, the film starts out as a winning, if familiar meet-cute scenario: Nanjiani plays himself as a Chicago stand-up comedian who notices a pretty girl, Emily (Zoe Kazan), in the crowd — which is exactly how he and Gordon met in real life. They date, and things are going well. But there’s trouble on the horizon: His Pakistani parents want him to marry someone from his own culture, so he needs to keep his white girlfriend a secret.
In most movies, that conflict would be the central issue, but The Big Sick (which was produced by Judd Apatow) one-ups the premise in shocking fashion. Angry that Kumail can’t see a future in which they end up together, Emily ends things with him about halfway through the movie. But rather than Kumail simply winning his way back into Emily’s heart, something terrible happens: Emily comes down with what she believes to be the flu, and after she winds up in the hospital, her doctors advise Kumail that she has to be put in a coma to help stabilize her vitals — which, again, is what happened in real life.
Then comes the next surprise: Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), travel from North Carolina to Chicago to be by her side. Kumail has never met them, but it’s clear they know who he is — and Emily’s mother is particularly pissed at him for breaking her little girl’s heart.
Granted, The Big Sick was inspired by real events, but the film’s daring in completely shifting tones is remarkable — especially because it sheds light on the difficulty that many men have in making nice with their partner’s parents.
At first, Kumail doesn’t want to be around Emily’s parents. He feels guilty about how he and Emily ended their relationship, and he knows her mom and dad hate him. As they start spending several long days in the hospital by Emily’s bedside, however, a tentative bond begins to form. Beth, in particular, comes to understand how well-meaning he is, and how much he knows he screwed up with Emily — particularly in a scene near the end of the film when he has a heart-to-heart with Beth after a long, tough night in which she watches him crash and burn onstage during a stand-up set.
Kumail also starts to bond with Terry, who’s harmed his marriage in his own ways. He cheated on Beth years ago; she insisted she has let it go, but every argument about what to do with Emily brings the old betrayal back up to the surface.
Along the way, Kumail comes to see them not as Emily’s parents, but as his friends. In a sense, the second half of The Big Sick is its own separate love story — one in which Kumail and Emily’s parents fall for each other, and in the process, Kumail remembers all over again why he fell for Emily. They become a team — an unlikely support group for one another — and by seeing how loving and kind Beth and Terry can be, Kumail starts to understand that he needs to commit to Emily and figure out a way to make it work with his own disapproving parents.
As rom-coms go, this is unusual. In a movie like Meet the Parents, a trip to the in-laws is typically fraught with awkwardness and anger — normally because the in-law characters are portrayed as caricatures who don’t resemble real people. That’s not what happens in The Big Sick, though. Beth and Terry get in bad moods, make unintentionally inappropriate comments about Kumail’s Muslim heritage — Terry asks him what he thought of 9/11, leading to a response so funny I won’t spoil it here — and generally try to make the best of a terrible situation.
Nor are Hunter and Romano’s performances sitcom-goofy; they’ve got a humanity to them that Robert De Niro never showed in the much broader Meet the Parents. So for all the laughs in The Big Sick, slapstick sequences are never given preferential treatment over real conversations between Kumail and Emily’s parents about love, marriage, infidelity and raising children.
And maybe most importantly, the trope is completely different. There is no lovable, put-upon hero who must overcome an impossible father-in-law or mother-in-law. It’s more or less the exact opposite: Rather than seeing his potential in-laws as a convenient obstacle, Kumail has to prove his worthiness to them — since as this wise, funny film knows all too well, they’re people from whom he can learn a thing or two.