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

 

Capsule Reviews

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING

Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr.

Length: 133 minutes

Directed by: Jon Watts

Rating: PG-13

The third launch of a Spider-Man series of films in 15 years is also the first produced by Marvel, and it pays off with an assured, fun approach that mixes plenty of laughs with the action. Michael Keaton as Vulture is one of the best Marvel villains yet, while Holland fills the shoes of 15-year-old alter ego Peter Parker with youthful energy. Grade: A

BABY DRIVER

Stars: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm

Length: 113 minutes

Directed by: Edgar Wright

Rating: R

This whiz-bang heist flick features the best car chases in many years, while writer-director Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) brings his inventive mix of laughs and violence to full boil using an ace cast that fills their roles out colorfully. The soundtrack is propulsive, non-stop fun and makes this the most original and entertaining movie of the summer so far. Grade: A

BEATRIZ AT DINNER

Stars: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow

Length: 83 minutes

Directed by: Miguel Arteta

Rating: R

A working-class holistic healer from Altadena (Salma Hayek) winds up invited to a wealthy Newport Beach client’s dinner party for a egomaniacal billionaire (John Lithgow), leading to an evening of escalating verbal clashes exposing the economic and philosophical divide between the sides. Hayek is solid, but this incredibly slow yet short film is way too heavy-handed.   Grade: D

MAUDIE

Stars: Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke

Length: 115 minutes

Directed by: Aisling Walsh

Rating: PG-13

The moving real-life tale of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis, who overcame crippling rheumatoid arthritis by becoming a beloved painter of outdoor scenes in her rural Nova Scotia hometown while also contending with a difficult but loving relationship with a loner named Everett. A quiet drama amid the bombastic blockbusters of summer, “Maudie” is riveting due to its terrific performances and heart.  Grade: A

THE MUMMY

Stars:  Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella

Length: 110 minutes

Directed by: Alex Kurtzman

Rating: PG-13

Tom Cruise’s latest attempt to find a blockbuster outside the “Mission: Impossible” franchise is a muddled mess, as he plays a rogue soldier stealing exotic antiquities who inadvertently unearths and unleashes an evil, mummified Egyptian princess. Cruise almost makes it work until the last half hour, when the movie completely falls apart. It should have stayed buried. Grade: D

WONDER WOMAN

Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine

Length: 141 minutes

Directed by: Patty Jenkins

Rating: PG-13

The first superhero movie centered on a female superhero brings a fresh perspective to the genre, with director Patty Jenkins adding an impressive level of thought, heart and humor to the terrific action and visuals as Wonder Woman teams with a British spy to stop a nefarious German plan and an evil force amid World War I. Fun and expertly made on every level, it’s a must see.  Grade: A