It took a while, but Kumail Nanjiani has worked his way into popular culture with a combination of sincerity and snarky charm. Even as he made his name in standup comedy and memorable television roles (most recently on “Silicon Valley”), he found acclaim for his one-man shows, which dig through his struggles as a Pakistani-American at odds with his traditional upbringing.
Now comes “The Big Sick,” which funnels the two sides of his career into a genuine crowdpleaser that juggles humor and pathos through a personal lens. Co-written with wife Emily V. Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan, who acts opposite Nanjiani as himself), the movie turns their bumpy courtship into a portrait of resilience that operates on both charm and depth.
“The Big Sick” is directed by Michael Showalter, whose “Hello, My Name is Doris” was a genial tale of midlife vigor that now plays like a calling card for this bigger canvas. However, the movie really belongs to Nanjiani in the first truly complex movie role of his career. At the center of nearly every scene, he relives his time as an upstart comedian who falls hard for the equally insuppressible Emily after she attends one of his shows, but hesitates to tell his staunchly religious family about her as they harbor aspirations of setting him up with a Pakistani.
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Juggling these priorities proves to be an unseemly task, made all the more complicated once Emily falls ill shortly after assailing him about his priorities. Suddenly, Kumail’s stuck at a hospital with her concerned parents. “The Big Sick” follows Kumail through these uneasy circumstances as the light comedic tone takes on additional layers with the various possibilities in play.
Though it occasionally strains from the clunky exposition of a first-time screenplay, “The Big Sick” excels at probing Kumail’s sense of being trapped between his American identity and the role his family expects him to play. The movie exists in the emerging genre of narratives based around comedians’ erratic lives. Aziz Ansari milks perceptive humor out of a similar identity crisis in “Masters of None,” and Kumail’s story also mines warm communal vibes and caustic humor specific to the standup scene that Mike Birbiglia probed in “Don’t Think Twice.” However, Nanjiani settles into this familiar universe with his own unique voice.
At first, “The Big Sick” is an appealing but familiar tale of courtship, with the geeky Nanjiani courting Emily with his classic movie love and awkward high school tales. Although her mixed reaction to his rambling one-man show touches on the prospects of a cultural disconnect, initially it seems as though the script will gloss over the issue’s deeper ramifications. Instead, it’s just getting started, as the cutesy tale of a would-be couple becomes a shrewder portrait when Emily finally confronts Kumail about family issues that have prevented him from telling his parents about her. It’s no great surprise that Kazan, ever the combustible performer, delivers on the intensity of this fraught discussion; Nanjiani, on the other, instantly blossoms into a serious actor elevated to a higher plane by his intimate bond with the story.
That’s the tipping point for this autobiographical sketch to take an unpredictable turn. When Emily’s stricken by a mysterious illness that forces doctors to put her in a medically induced coma, Kumail pushes himself back into the picture by tracking down her folks. Enter Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter), who initially eye Kumail with suspicion until they’re stuck with him, even as his own future with Emily remains in limbo along with her health.
The midsection shifts focus to this inadvertent trio, which finds Romano turning in a surprisingly muted and affecting performance as neurotic New Yorker. He’s matched by a lively Hunter, who injects Terry’s salty language and rambunctious southern attitude with a robust presence that gives the actress her best material in years. In a handful of scenes, the three characters engage in a hilariously awkward dynamic — it doesn’t take long for Terry to reference Kumail’s Muslim heritage, which leads him to make an awful attempt at 9/11 humor — but the trio starts to bond. The older couple’s decision to attend Kumail’s standup on the eve of Emily’s surgery dovetails into a late-night drinking session back at her apartment, finding common ground along the way.
As with Ansari, Nanjiani and his wife excel at exploring the nature of the minority experience in America, and Nanjiani clearly has a knack for reflecting the goofball quality of the comic scene. (Returning throughout to the low-rent venue where he hones his standup skills, he trades sardonic barbs with a great cast of real-life comedians, including Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler.) He’s on equally firm footing when exploring his rocky attempts to mollify his judgmental parents, even as they refuse to accept the possibility that their son might assimilate into the country surrounding him. The movie finds room for all these arenas by showing how conflicting expectations barrel down on Nanjiani at every turn.
“The Big Sick” suffers from a handful of clumsier exchanges, along with a two-hour running time that cycles through some of the same material too many times. The screenwriters and their director seem so eager to please and in love with the scenario that it struggles at times to move forward. Showalter directs the material with a straightforward look that mostly stays out of the way to let the script and actors do the heavy lifting. “The Big Sick” plays less like a great movie than a platform for its appealing tone, but .it’s so well acted and dense with insights into the culture clash at its center that nothing about the central dynamic is strained.
Nanjiani’s parents just can’t sort him out. “Always with the comedy,” his mother says with a sigh, but it’s clear that for Nanjiani, the comedy speaks to deeper truths. No matter the specifics of the backstory, “The Big Sick” follows the familiar beats of a romantic comedy right up to its sentimental ending. “The Big Sick” applies its formula to proving that — in spite of this couple’s very different origins — the nature of their bond is universal.
“The Big Sick” premiered in U.S. Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.