Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine the work of the great ensemble cast of Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick.
The Big Sick‘s director Michael Showalter touched on why stand-up comedy can sometimes resemble public displays of therapy,
“There’s something about the performance and anonymity of the audience and the microphone in your hand where you actually get to say your truth. That’s the moment of purest expression, not just for the comedian, but for that person. I definitely felt that I could sometimes be more honest and more truthful to a room full of people that I’ve never met before than to a friend or to a loved one.”
Stand-up comedians often suffuse their personal lives into their routines. They cherry-pick real-life experiences and then stretch them to the humorous extremes. Making light of their own personal history–however tragic–can help create a relatable connection to the audience. And in relaying that story, it can also allow the performer to understand something about themselves better too.
Actors, though, are often deterred from performances based on their own life. The concern is that by forcing yourself to relive complex emotions, the lines between reality and fiction can easily blur. The result of this is a method actor forgetting where the process ends and the performance begins. But it’s also simpler than that. It’s just hard to shake off trauma after engaging with it for an extended period of time.
But that’s not exactly a privilege multi-hyphenate comedian-actor-writer Kumail Nanjiani had with his autobiographical role in The Big Sick. The entire film required Nanjiani to reengage with the most traumatic event of his life; when his partner, Emily V. Gordon, suddenly fell into a coma.
However, Nanjiani and co-writer Gordon don’t let the emotional weight of what really happened hang heavy on The Big Sick. Instead, they keep thoughtful humor and romantic comedy tropes at the forefront of an outwardly tragic story. And in doing so, they subvert our expectations of what rom-com relationships can look like.
After a heckle becomes a meet-cute between Emily (Zoe Kazan) and Kumail, we’re swept into their early courtship. Nanjiani and Kazan’s chemistry is electric as they effortlessly express all the highs and lows of a blossoming relationship. Not shying away from the messy in-between moments makes their rom-com story feel more relatable than the farcical antics of a film like Richard Curtis and Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Like every great rom-com, as Emily and Kumail fall in love, so do we fall in love with them. And when their relationship invariably hits the skids, we feel just as gutted. But unlike how this trope is applied in other rom-coms, The Big Sick doesn’t just temporarily break up our lovers. It subverts our expectations by sidelining one-half of our central relationship for the majority of the film.
Showalter succinctly summarized this subversion in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, “It would be like if, you know, in When Harry Met Sally, Meg Ryan just went into a coma 30 minutes into the movie.” Removing half of the relationship is one way The Big Sick subverts classic rom-com tropes. But there is another, more nuanced subversion. It happens between Nanjiani, Holly Hunter, and Ray Romano, who play Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry.
After Emily falls into a coma, Nanjiani becomes the heart of the film. He carries the chemistry he developed with Kazan into the relationships he creates with other characters. Rather than watching Kumail and Emily’s love continue to grow, it unexpectedly flourishes with Beth and Terry. Through Hunter and Romano’s performance, we see glimpses of the Emily that Nanjiani fell in love with. We see her empathy through Romano’s wholesome paternal warmth. In Hunter, we see Emily’s sharp-tongued wit that first caught Kumail’s heart. Suddenly, the relationship Kumail was building with one person has split into two.
After an awkward meeting at the hospital, followed by an even more awkward stand-up gig, they retreat back to Emily’s apartment as the night wears on. As they drink and get to know each other, the cold shoulder Beth first gives Kumail melts away. There’s an unanticipated warmth that radiates between Nanjiani and Hunter that is overwhelming–the exact word Emily used to describe her feelings for Kumail earlier in the film. Hunter plays this newfound affection with laidback ease, using her southern charm to enrapture the audience as we watch their relationship begin to grow. Now we’re not just hoping for two lovers to get together–we’re rooting for an entire family.
Nanjiani particularly shines in the moments where he’s on the periphery of a scene, watching in silence with the same helplessness he likely felt in real life. As Beth and Terry brace themselves for the worst after learning Emily must undergo surgery, Kumail stands in the corner in quiet anguish. We can sense in his body language an internal conflict. He wants to be shoulder to shoulder with Beth and Terry, but as an outsider, he’s unsure of his place in this family.
Without drawing attention away from Hunter and Romano’s performances, Nanjiani shows us a gut punch that’s quietly authentic and underlines what makes his work so captivating in the film. He’s simply allowing his thoughts and memories to influence his actions in the moment, saving his performance from drowning in all of the abject emotional trauma he undoubtedly experienced.
Through the intentional subversion of genre tropes, Kumail Nanjiani and the ensemble cast of The Big Sick delivered authentic performances without losing any of the charm we expect from the greatest rom-com ensembles, like the aforementioned Four Weddings and a Funeral. Nanjiani himself has a well-documented obsession with that film’s star, Hugh Grant, whose performance inspired him to become a comedian. While Nanjiani’s hair may not flop quite as majestically as Grant’s, his affinity for the actor is absolutely evident on screen. We can only imagine future generations of actors will find just as much inspiration in The Big Sick as Nanjiani did when he first witnessed the affable charm of Richard Curtis’ rom-com everyman.