Watching Hasan Minhaj’s new Netflix special “Homecoming King” is kind of a startling jolt of adrenaline to the notion of normal American culture. “The Daily Show” correspondent and recent White House Correspondence Dinner host shares intimate stories of childhood as the son of Indian parents in suburban California. They are filled with humor, care, arrogance and – most importantly – learning. The insight into the malleable ignorance of people from all walks of life is a stark rebuke to the idea of stereotypes. It’s mostly invigorating because of Minhaj’s oozing lovability and charm, but it’s rooted in a taboo structure of coming from a ‘different’ background than the world in which you wake.
To be honest, talking about growing up in families from other cultures has never been so prolific. Minhaj’s special, along with Aziz Ansari’s wonderful “Master of None,” Trevor Noah’s run on “The Daily Show” and work from countless other comedians and actors from Asian, Middle Eastern and African backgrounds are shedding light on cultures that are often shoved to the corner in conversations about American life.
Now, Kumail Nanjiani brings his personal account of assimilation into the American experience to life with “The Big Sick,” an origin story about the first year of Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon’s relationship in the midst of an unexpected illness that put Gordon (portrayed in the film by Zoe Kazan) into a coma for eight days.
“The Big Sick” is thoroughly centered on two things: Nanjiani’s relationship and his family. These two entities are set at odds against each other early in the film, but instead of any ham-fisted melodrama involving the pair, Nanjiani constructs the story around his interactions with his girlfriend’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). After they arrive in Chicago to tend to their daughter, Nanjiani’s true self emerges in his thankless care and companionship for both his girlfriend and her parents during one of the worst weeks of their lives.
Hunter and Romano are incredible together, quickly establishing a brilliantly detailed life story with tiny eccentricities I knew Hunter could nail but wouldn’t have believed Romano had the ability to convey. At first reluctant to accepting Nanjiani due to his having broken their daughter’s heart, the couple later stick to his side like sea urchins while simultaneously playing up their upper hand afforded by his hurting their daughter before her mysterious illness. The situation forces Nanjiani’s hand, and his moral aptitude finds a way to the surface.
Nanjiani, along with director Michael Showalter and producer Judd Apatow, construct such a remarkably relatable world because it’s steeped so deeply in reality. Nanjiani doesn’t have to phone anything in because he’s been telling stories of his life for a decade on standup stages. Much like Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me,” the comedian uses the medium of film to enhance his storytelling ability to new dimensions that allow the saccharine love story and the somber fear of death to live outside of punchlines and still be hilarious and enriching.
It’s a bit insulting to refer to “The Big Sick” as simply a modern love story because it’s much more than that; it’s a modern universal truth about acceptance of one’s self along with loved ones no matter what struggle it requires. However, the little time Nanjiani and Kazan do spend onscreen together while they are both lucid is as charming a love story as you will find in any romantic comedy this summer.