A romantic comedy that works best when forgetting it’s a romantic comedy, “The Big Sick” contains a love and meet-the-parents story that no screenwriter could invent.
It’s a slightly messy, often funny and humanity-filled alternative to summer blockbusters.
Comedian-actor-writer Kumail Nanjiani and writer-producer Emily Gordon have dramatized their real-life courtship, and remarkable events surrounding it, using a romantic-comedy structure.
Nanjiani plays a fictional version of himself; Zoe Kazan portrays Gordon.
Michael Showalter (“The Baxter”) directs their Chicago-set story conventionally but with vigor and feeling (in a Judd Apatow production).
Kumail is a Pakistani-American comedian who performs at clubs, drives for Uber and dines frequently with his traditional Muslim family.
His parents (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff) expect him to pray regularly, become a lawyer and marry any of the nice Pakistani girls they keep inviting over. He wants none of the above.
Kumail and Emily (Kazan), a white graduate student, meet cute at a comedy performance and fall in love.
Knowing that dating a white and non-Muslim woman could cause his parents to shun him, Kumail doesn’t tell them about Emily. When Emily finds out, she breaks up with him.
The story takes a bizarre turn when the post-breakup Emily is hospitalized with a mysterious infection and placed in a medically induced coma.
Kumail arrives at the hospital, as do Emily’s bickering parents, fiery Beth (Holly Hunter) and bumbling Terry (Ray Romano).
Initially, the pair want Kumail out of the picture. But as Emily’s condition worsens, they form an eccentric yet meaningful bond.
The movie suffers from too much superficial comedian-banter, Kumail’s unassimilated parents seeming like caricatures compared to Emily’s complicated kin, and a sentimental, formulaic finale.
At the same time, it often unfolds to its own heartbeat, especially in triumphant Beth-and-Terry scenes.
Whether Terry is confessing his marital transgressions to the reserved Kumail, or Beth and Kumail are gorging on junk food together, or, more seriously, decisions about Emily’s treatment are being made, the film sparkles with intelligent writing and beautifully acted crazy-believable character dynamics.
Romano’s Terry, a math teacher who tells awful jokes and feels ineffectual, is, by turns sad and quietly hilarious. As the wired but caring Beth, Hunter nearly steals the movie. She has a knockout scene in which she tongue-lashes a racist comedy-show heckler.
Nanjiani and Kazan provide requisite chemistry. Kazan’s irresistible heroine is sufficiently memorable in Act 1 to remain prominent in viewers’ thoughts when lying unconscious in the story’s midsection.
Nanjiani, the lesser thespian, is tremendously likable and, being a comedian, genuinely funny.
A scene when Kumail reaches into a bag of tricks in an attempt to woo Emily back, exemplifies his, and the movie’s, gift for prompting smiles.
The Big Sick
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano
Written by Kumail Nanjiani, Emily Gordon
Directed by Michael Showalter
Running time 1 hour, 59 minutes