‘The Big Sick’ revives the romantic comedy

12:00 a.m. Thursday, June 29, 2017 Movies & TV
From left, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano and Kumail Nanjiani in “The Big Sick.” Contributed by Nicole Rivelli/Lionsgate

In “The Big Sick,” Pakistani-American stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani plays Pakistani-American stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani — and that is not even close to where the similarities end.

When the real-life Nanjiani, then a struggling Chicago comic, was courting Emily Gordon in the first decade of this new century, the latter fell into a weird, deep coma. Suddenly, casual dating in the 20-something manner became something much more complicated. (Spoiler: She lived, they got married, Nanjiani’s stand-up got great and he recently wrapped up the fourth season of “Silicon Valley.”)

Nanjiani and Gordon, who is a writer, shaped their story into “The Big Sick,” directed by Michael Showalter (but it feels very much like a Judd Apatow picture — he is a producer). The movie screened in Austin earlier this year at South by Southwest.

One night while Nanjiani is on stage, he banters a bit with an audience member named Emily (played by the excellent Zoe Kazan). They hang, they hook up, all seems well.

Except Nanjiani’s very traditional Pakistani parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, both big fun to watch) want to set him up with (read: arrange his marriage to) a nice Pakistani girl — they invite a seemingly endless string of them over for Sunday dinners. Nanjiani, a thoroughly non-observant Muslim (he plays video games for five minutes when he should be praying in the basement) can’t bring himself to tell the family about the white girl in his life.

Things come to a head when Emily finds out she’s still a secret from Nanjiani’s parents. Our heroes break up.

Then Emily becomes ill, mysteriously so, struck with the kind of full body collapse that prompts doctors to put you in an induced coma while they try to figure out what is wrong. Nanjiani rushes to the hospital, only to meet Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) there.

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Some personal details and the order of certain events were altered in the transition from real life to rom-com. But the interesting thing about “The Big Sick” is its complicated relationship with traditional romantic comedy tropes. This is also a hallmark of Apatow’s work, but “The Big Sick” is far less broad (and neurotic, for that matter) than, say, “Knocked Up” or even “This is 40.” It’s essentially a meet-cute story, except the cute part involves a medically induced coma and two sets of parents who are not thrilled with this situation for completely different reasons.

In the dramady formulation, “The Big Sick” leans more on the drama. Hunter and Romano are never cartoonish; Hunter feels especially on point.

It’s awfully hard not to genuinely like both Nanjiani and Kazan, and unlike so many post-Apatow comedies, “The Big Sick” feels written rather than improvised. The stress of the actual event is palpable — Nanjiani is juggling his parents’ expectations, a new relationship and a good bit of creative omission when Emily gets sick. No wonder things come to a head.

And speaking of the arranged marriage thing, the creative team is wise (or woke) enough to give a little bit of time to the women on the other side of the dinner table. Vella Lovell (consistently terrific on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) is especially good as Khadija, a South Asian woman who isn’t too thrilled with all this cultural baggage, either, but takes it far more seriously than Nanjiani.

It’s a small moment and one a less empathetic creative team would have cut. But “The Big Sick” is all about life’s incredibly difficult, brutally awkward moments. Not awkward in in the “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” cringe-a-thon sense, but awkward in the these-emotions-are-incredibly-complicated sense. Which is much, much more difficult.

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