The Big Sick

(2017) *** R
119 min. Amazon Studios/Lionsgate. Director: Michael Showalter. Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano.

/content/films/5065/1.jpgIt’s funny because it’s true. Comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) takes this comedy credo to heart with The Big Sick, a romantic comedy he co-wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon. While The Big Sick shouldn’t be taken literally in every particular, it’s the essentially true story of Nanjiani and Gordon’s relationship, starring Nanjiani as himself.

Produced by Judd Apatow (Trainwreck) and directed by Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris), The Big Sick lets Nanjiani be Nanjiani, allowing him an authentic comic voice and personality on stage and off. We see Nanjiani working the room at Chicago’s comedy clubs, hanging with fellow comedians (Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant play CJ and Mary), struggling to please his Pakistani-American family, and wooing Emily (Zoe Kazan).

All of this business works as engaging, high-spirited slice-of-life material, with Kazan and Nanjiani charming with their comic banter. But the rub is in that title: The Big Sick refers to the unavoidable spoiler that Emily unexpectedly finds herself incapacitated by a health crisis. That crisis not only winds up ultimately bringing the lovers together for good (see the screenwriting credits) but sets the stage for Kumail to meet Emily’s lovably loving parents Beth and Terry, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.

You’ve heard of romance and bromance; here we get “mom-and-pop-mance.” It’s hardly love at first sight for the folks and Kumail. Instead of “meet cute,” it’s “meet terrified,” huddled with doctors, in waiting rooms, or around Emily’s hospital bed. The initial awkward small talk includes Terry muttering, “So, uh, 9/11.” The icy relations quickly thaw, though, allowing Kumail to see the trouble within Beth and Terry’s marriage, and the parents to see the good in Kumail despite his having failed Emily before her illness.

The Big Sick functions, then, not only as a boilerplate rom-com that’s consistently amusing and possessed with charming leads, but also as a heartwarming drama. It’s touching to witness the tendrils of care tentatively reach out then firmly take hold under crisis, within the romantic relationships but also in the relationships between children and parents, and potential in-laws. Nanjiani and Gordon also do a nice job of laying out an arc of acceptance within Nanjiani’s immediate family, despite his choices of a comedy career and a non-Pakistani woman (since more-or-less arranged marriage is the norm).

The Big Sick shows a clear awareness that the little things matter: in fine-tuning art (like Kumail’s autobiographical one-man show, which begins disastrously dull) and in winning people over. One relatable detail finds Kumail giving Emily a “taste test” by showing her his favorite movie, The Abominable Dr. Phibes. There’s a good chance that the amiable The Big Sick may help to bond some folks too.

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