Autobiography is traditionally the realm of the writer, not the filmmaker. Maybe that's because it's a lot easier to sit down and write the story of your life than it is to hire a film crew and play yourself doing the things you did in real life. You'll also be much more successful at conveying to the audience the subjective experience of being you in written form than you would be by trying to recreate real-life events in front of a camera. No matter how much time and money you spend, it's just never going to look the same, if for no other reason than the fact you'll be older the second time around.
These difficulties are part of what make the success of The Big Sick so remarkable. It's the true story of how the two screenwriters, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, met and fell in love. What raises the difficulty level significantly is that Nanjiani plays himself.
Documentarians such as Agnès Varda and Ross McElwee have used the medium of film to paint sometimes unflattering portraits of themselves. Memphis filmmaker Kentucker Audley made two intimately autobiographical films: the coming of age story Open Five, and Open Five 2, which was about the personal repercussions of making an autobiographical film. Mumblecore made a trope of actors having the same names as their characters, but how much they were really "being themselves" is up for debate. Maybe the closest analog for what Nanjiani does in The Big Sick is Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back, only Murphy was a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, and Nanjiani was a comedian.
Not to belittle the comedian's courage. Ever tried to do standup? It's scary. It's even harder at Kumail's at level, which is "You put out the chairs at the comedy club, so you get to do five minutes of material." Kumail's got a squad of fellow comedians suffering in the trenches, including Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham, and a side hustle as an Uber driver. (This is the first clue as to the level of authenticity in The Big Sick. Nanjiani and Gordon got married in 2007, while Uber didn't get started until 2009.) One night at the club, he gets especially big laughs from a cute girl in the audience and introduces himself afterward. Emily is played by Zoe Kazan, who does a fantastic job. She's a North Carolina girl in Chicago to go to grad school and become a therapist. She continues to insist that she is not interested in dating anyone, even as the number of their dates ticks upwards.
But their budding romance threatens to stall out because of cultural forces they can't control. Kumail's got a traditional Pakistani family, and that means he's expected to acquiesce to an arranged marriage. The portrayal of family is another factor that makes The Big Sick an exceptional and unconventional rom-com. It's clear that Kumail gets his razor wit from his father, played by Anupam Kher, and brother, played by Adeel Akhtar. His long-suffering mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), tries to set Kumail up with a long list of what are certainly suitable bridal choices, but none of them are Emily. Kumail is certain that if his family knows he's in love with a white girl, he'll be disowned, so he pushes Emily away. That's when tragedy strikes.
Emily's parents, with whom Kumail gets unexpectedly well acquainted, are played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. Romano gets laughs while delivering a performance of unexpected depth — I've never been a fan, but he does good work here. Hunter looks relaxed and in her element, shining in her individual scenes while playing perfectly with the ensemble.
The Big Sick is a balancing act that could have easily descended into either schmaltz or self aggrandizement. Director Michael Showalter must get a lot of credit for keeping the tone exactly right and pulling great performances out of the skilled cast. This is a comedy with real-life stakes that's not about being cruel to anyone. It's also a little shaggy and loose, which is excusable because the characters are so fun to be around. A tighter edit might have elevated The Big Sick to true greatness, but pretty darn good doesn't feel like settling.