Every year filmmakers flock to Sundance with deeply personal movies inspired by their lives and experiences. But rarely do those films also fire on all cylinders as fully fleshed-out pieces of entertainment. Comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani and writer Emily V. Gordon mine their personal history for laughs, heartache, and hard-earned insight in “The Big Sick,” a film that’s by turns romantic, rueful, and hilarious. It’s a no-brainer to connect with art-house crowds who like their comedies smart and funny, but this one deserves a shot at the multiplex, too.
Well-known in standup circles, and a reliable scene stealer in both film and television (perhaps most notably on HBO’s sterling “Silicon Valley”), Nanjiani is overdue for a lead role — and if it takes playing a character loosely based on himself in a movie co-written with his wife, so be it. Nanjiani and Gordon manage the tricky feat of crafting characters who feel undeniably authentic and endearing comic creations at the same time. As such, “The Big Sick” ranks alongside the very best of producer Judd Apatow’s oeuvre and marks a significant step up in maturity and groundedness for helmer Michael Showalter (a longtime friend and collaborator of Nanjiani’s who also directed the actor in last year’s “Hello, My Name Is Doris”).
Opening on Nanjiani’s days as a struggling Chicago comic (and Uber driver — the film is inspired by the past but very much set in the present), the backstage shenanigans and shaggy dog storytelling initially bring to mind Louis C.K.’s influential “Louie.” But rather than one more big-screen story that can’t quite keep up with today’s small-screen efforts, “The Big Sick” has a full meal in store. It begins with a meet-cute between Kumail and Emily (Zoe Kazan), who affectionately heckles him during a performance and ultimately agrees to go home with him the same night.
The push-pull of their courtship is charted through Kumail’s self-proclaimed “dweeby” adoration for classic horror (“Night of the Living Dead,” “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”) and Emily’s open-book nature (she was nicknamed “Beetlejuice” in high school, and she has an ex-husband). Conflict looms in the form of Kumail’s strict Muslim clan, particularly his formidable mother (Zenobia Shroff), who doesn’t go so far as to arrange a marriage, but invites a different eligible Pakistani woman to “drop by” at every family dinner. Even as Kumail and Emily grow closer, he knows that introducing her to his parents means certain exile, and it’s a risk he’s not willing to take. That decision does not sit well with Emily, to say the least.
Where most movies might be content to follow the culture-clash comedy through its typical ups and downs, “The Big Sick” proves to be a far messier affair, and all the more rewarding for it. Mirroring real life, Emily contracts a mysterious infection, is hospitalized and put into a medically induced coma for her own well-being. That twist, around the 40-minute mark, also heralds the arrival of Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), from North Carolina. They immediately butt heads with Kumail, proving themselves far more knowledgeable of his relationship with Emily than are his parents.
It’s also the point when a perfectly charming film morphs into something completely riveting. The groundwork laid in Kumail’s courtship of Emily adds genuine tension to the unfolding medical drama, and the left-field presence of Beth and Terry — superbly played by Hunter and Romano in beautifully layered comedic turns — pushes Kumail and the film in surprising directions.
Although it’s an undeniably warm movie, Nanjiani and Gordon aren’t afraid to milk the story’s dark comedy either. Few writers can find room for jokes about ISIS, “Forrest Gump,” and “The X-Files,” but the script channels the same mix of pop culture and political savvy Nanjiani demonstrates in his standup.
While Nanjiani makes the most of his turn in the spotlight, the movie works so well because every actor in the core quartet is allowed room to shine. The spirit of generosity and inclusiveness runs throughout terrific turns from Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and Kurt Braunohler as Kumail’s standup pals; Shroff, Anupam Kher, Adeel Akhtar, and Shenaz Treasurywala as Kumail’s family; and Vella Lovell as one of Kumail’s mother’s chosen women, who delivers a devastating take-down of his childish behavior.
As a director, Showalter remains workmanlike in his craftsmanship, but his eye for talent is as strong as ever. By allowing the scenes more room to breathe and playing the comedy as straight as the emotional content, he has not only delivered his best work yet but reintroduced himself as a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on.