There’s a name at the top of The Big Sick poster which isn’t getting as much press as you’d expect: Producer Judd Apatow. This largely autobiographical film is being regarded as Silicon Valley co-star Kumail Nanjiani’s leading man breakthrough. He wrote the script with his wife, Emily Gordon, based the story on their coma-detoured courtship and has opened eyes and warmed hearts with his deft balance of comedy, tragedy and cultural commentary in his powerhouse central performance. But Big Sick is also largely of a piece with the style of comedy Apatow has spearheaded for over a decade, first as a writer-director and now as an uber-producer.
And make no mistake: Apatow has towered over American comedy since The 40-Year-Old Virgin. He has a keen eye for talent and somewhat narrow view on how to groom said talent. Without fail, he encourages those he mentors – Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Kristen Wiig Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer – to simply write what they know. That has resulted in a steady churn of breakthrough comedies (Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Bridesmaids, Trainwreck) and TV show (Girls, Love) which are heavily based on the lives of the stars/writers. He has, of course, followed his own advice to his own peril, bottoming out with annoyingly self-indulgent works like Funny People and This Is 40, the latter of which comes with so much of Apatow’s own midlife crisis baked in it practically “comes with its own sports car” (hat-tip to The Guardian for that punchline).
The Big Sick, though, takes the absolute prize for the most blatant “writing what they know.” Thanks to the countless talk show and podcast interviews Nanjiani and Gordon have conducted on the promotional trail, we know there is very little in The Big Sick which didn’t actually happen in real life. [SPOILERS BEGIN NOW] The big bullet points of the story are the same. Emily (who is played by Zoe Kazan in the movie) and Kumail fell in love in Chicago when she was finishing a masters degree for psychotherapy and he was attempting to make it as a stand-up. They hit a wall as a couple due to his unwillingness to stand up to his mother’s insistence that he honor his culture and enter an arranged marriage. Then Emily came down with a mysterious illness and was placed in a medically-induced coma, leaving Kumail to bond with her parents (whom he was meeting for the first time, memorably played in the film by Ray Ramono and Holly Hunter) while pledging to get his shit together and figure out his life.
The small details are also nearly identical. For example, she playfully “wooed!” at one of his stand-up shows when he asked if anyone in the audience was from Pakistan, and when he saw that she was so clearly not actually Pakistani it threw him off thus initiating their meet-cute.
Of course, not everything is the same. They changed the timing of Kumail’s inevitable confrontation with his tradition-loving Pakistani mother as well as what he does to pay the bills while trying to make it in stand-up (in the film, he’s an Uber driver, but in real life he had a 9-to-5 office job because Uber didn’t exist yet when this actually happened). There’s also a twist involving Emily’s parents which is complete fiction. However, the line between fact and fiction is so blurred here that Kumail didn’t even think to change his character’s last name meaning in The Big Sick Kumail Nanjiani is playing someone named, um, Kumail Nanjiani. His wife at least thought to change the film Emily’s last name to something else.
This movie, then, is pretty much just a dramatic re-enactment of Kumail and Emily’s life, and the fact that Emily is still alive and currently working as a TV writer in Hollywood pretty well spoils the ending here. Beyond that, Kumail and Emily (and director Michael Showalter) did as producer Apatow always expects and delivered a 2-hour running time, and landed on a third act which champions the comedian’s cliched coming-of-age moment when life and career conspires to inspire Kumail to finally start being himself on stage.
I loved this movie. When Apatow flirted with simply using Hollywood actors to populate his own glorified home movies and life story in This Is 40 it came off as someone sticking his head entirely up his own ass. When Kumail and Emily do it in The Big Sick, though, it comes off as heart-warmingly authentic. This might just be a fanciful re-enactment of the most interesting period in either of their lives, but it’s also quite an amazing story which touches on a culture (Pakistan) we don’t see on-screen enough and prospers from the wonderful work put in by Nanjiani, Ramano and Hunter as three people forced by a cruel twist of fate to find a common ground. Moreover, before we even reach the titular Sick Nanjiani and Kazan’s courtship section of the movie produces consistent laughs and awwws, to the point that you are definitely rooting for those two crazy kids to work it out (or at least for her to, ya know, not die).
THE BOTTOM LINE
I struggle somewhat with this movie because more so than anything in the Judd Apatow catalog (even This Is 40) this really is just a dramatic recreation of the lives of the involved stars/creators. Practically everything that happens to movie Kumail and Emily happened to real life Kumail and Emily. However, the passage of time has given them the necessary wisdom to frame the events in an engaging and thoughtful way, earning laughs where few rom-coms have before and sending audiences out feeling just a little better about life and love.