Life has a way of throwing big decisions at people unexpectedly. In the romantic comedy “The Big Sick,” actor-comedian Kumail Nanjiani recounts one that changed his life forever. The movie, co-written by Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon — a popular writer and comic in her own right — recounts the comedy-club meeting that led to a one-night stand, which soon turned into a relationship tested by their culture gap and Gordon’s near-fatal illness.
Now a comedy star with frequent roles in TV and films, including a co-starring role on HBO’s sitcom “Silicon Valley,” Nanjiani here hearkens back to his early, pre-stardom days as a standup comic in Chicago. That real-life experience pays off throughout, with a realistic portrait of the backstage banter among comics struggling for stage time.
Playing himself, Kumail scores a key performing slot in front of an important talent scout, but his concentration is thrown off by a loud cheer from a graduate student named Emily (Zoe Kazan). He flirts with her from the stage, leading to a one-night stand that evolves into a serious relationship.
However, Kumail hides this fact from his Pakistani Muslim immigrant family, who wonder why he doesn’t practice his faith as traditionally as his siblings. His mother also constantly has women “just drop by” at family dinners in hopes of leading him into an arranged marriage.
But the agnostic Kumail never takes the bait and also pretends to pray when his family orders him to do so in their basement. Tensions arise when he finally admits to his brother that he’s dating a “white woman,” and Emily figures out that he’s hiding her from his family.
Yet when Emily lands in a hospital ICU with a massive, life-threatening lung infection, Kumail rushes to be at her side. Within moments, a doctor informs him that she needs to be put in a medically induced coma to survive and pressures him to claim he’s her husband and sign the necessary order.
As her out-of-state parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) arrive to care for her, Kumail finds himself in yet another conflict since her mom knows he broke Emily’s heart. But he finds empathy from her father, who has a secret of his own, and soon learns how hard relationships can be.
“The Big Sick” is filled with moving moments that add impressive depth to what could have been another standard entry in Hollywood’s endless stream of romantic comedies. Nanjiani and Gordon clearly put a lot of heart into their script, with director Michael Showalter (“Hello, My Name Is Doris”) striking a perfect balance between humor and sadness, adding to his string of character-driven, humane comedies.
The movie is at its best in its depiction of family ties across disparate cultures, and its exploration of the struggles that relationships face. It might seem easy for an actor to play himself, but Nanjiani does outstanding work and displays a brave willingness to share his most emotional moments, warts and all.
Kazan brings a refreshing charm to her role, and it’s a shame that she has to be knocked out in a coma for much of the storyline. Hunter delivers her most dynamic and feisty performance in at least a decade, while Romano builds on his stable of impressively emotional performances since the end of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
While “Sick” is being released nationwide this weekend, it has already proven successful playing in limited art-house releases for the past two weeks. Much of Hollywood is watching to see how much it will gross as a sign of hope for indie films that are increasingly marginalized amid the blockbusters that dominate the marketplace.
During a summer in which raunchy comedies such as “Baywatch” and “Rough Night” have bombed badly, “Sick” is offering hope that comedy isn’t dead at the box office. Some industry analysts have speculated that comedies may soon be relegated to second-tier streaming platforms rather than theaters if the flops keep coming.
Most of all, however, they are looking to see if Nanjiani can defy the odds and create a big enough hit to merit more leading man roles. If so, he would be the first Hollywood star in memory to hail from a predominantly Muslim country, overcoming a major hurdle that could help become a big part of curing prejudice on the silver screen. Grade: A
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Length: 133 minutes
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BEATRIZ AT DINNER
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