“The Big Sick” begins with a meet-cute, proceeds confidently through flirtation, sex and full-fledged romance, then skids to a halt with a nasty breakup, followed by the kind of dire medical emergency that seems fated to end in reconciliation or grief.
It sounds like the stuff of a conventional romantic dramedy, and on some level it is. Certainly you can sense the imprint of Judd Apatow, one of the movie’s producers, in both its emotional density and its precision-tooled stream of laughs and tears.
Conventionality is a funny thing, though (and so, for that matter, is “The Big Sick”). The beats and patterns of the average American comedy can often feel as moribund as those of, say, the noisy, CGI-encumbered superhero epic. But as “Wonder Woman” recently demonstrated, all it takes is the savvy adjustment of a single element — not necessarily limited to the protagonist’s gender or ethnicity, though there are worse places to start — for something straightforward to look positively radical.
And so it is with “The Big Sick,” which, in charting the romance between a Pakistani American man and a white woman, invigorates the Apatovian formula and indeed an entire genre with a thorny study of interracial relationships and the bonds that hold immigrant families together across an ever-widening generation gap.
The relative novelty of this kind of big-screen exploration springs, in this instance, from real life. Smoothly directed by Michael Showalter (“Hello, My Name Is Doris”), “The Big Sick” is the brainchild of its screenwriters, the actor-comedian Kumail Nanjiani and (spoiler alert?) his wife, the writer-producer Emily V. Gordon. With far more skill than solipsism, they have spun their true love story into a warm and gently thought-provoking fiction.
While Emily is given a delightfully spirited reading by Zoe Kazan, Nanjiani pulls off the none-too-easy feat of playing a younger version of himself (and stepping into the leading role for which four seasons of “Silicon Valley” have prepared him well).
In the movie, the Pakistan-born, Chicago-based Kumail works as an Uber driver while pursuing a career in stand-up comedy. One evening his set is interrupted by a “woo-hoo!” from Emily — a friendly bit of audience participation that, as Kumail informs her afterward with mock reproach, nevertheless fits the definition of heckling.
Emily is no professional comedian herself (she’s studying to be a therapist), but to the movie’s good fortune, she does not allow Kumail to hoard all the jokes; on the contrary, she seems to be entirely on his goofy, anything-for-a-punchline wavelength from the moment of their first encounter. As they spend several evenings hooking up, hanging out and watching Kumail’s favorite horror movies at his endearingly crummy bachelor pad, the prickly and propulsive rhythm of their banter alone is a delightful testament to their compatibility.
But Emily soon realizes the extent to which Kumail, for all his outwardly Western ways, remains beholden to the rigid expectations of his family’s culture. For his traditionalist parents, Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), the idea of Kumail dating, let alone marrying, outside his race would be unthinkable. In their ideal world, he would ditch the comedy, become a lawyer and settle down with one of the many, many nice Pakistani American girls they keep inviting over for dinner.
The latter bit will come as no surprise to those who saw the crowd-pleasing documentary “Meet the Patels,” which similarly addressed the informal, family-driven dating services that often thrive in immigrant communities. Fans of “Master of None” will likewise spot parallels between Nanjiani and that show’s Indian American star, Aziz Ansari, both aspiring entertainers with an ambivalent relationship to their Muslim upbringing.
In different hands, “The Big Sick” might have engineered an awkward meeting between Kumail’s parents and their future daughter-in-law, but in the short term, fate had precisely the opposite outcome in store for Nanjiani and Gordon.
Shortly after angrily breaking things off with Kumail, Emily is hospitalized with a mysterious infection and placed in a medically induced coma, a shock that brings Kumail back into the picture and forces him to spend several days waiting for good or bad news with her out-of-town parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano).
It’s the kind of crisis that speaks to the unpredictability of life, which rarely cleaves to rom-com trajectories or delivers its most important lessons in the expected order. Happenstance, in this case, also begets the movie’s secret weapon, as Romano and Hunter give marvelously full-bodied performances that, far from seeming like isolated showstoppers, only deepen and complicate the movie’s emotional undercurrents.
Terry, beneficiary of the drawl that Romano spent years perfecting on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” has an arsenal full of clueless dad jokes and an instinctive kinship with Kumail. Beth is far tougher on the guy who broke her daughter’s heart, but it doesn’t take long for her spitfire veneer to crack open. There are almost no words to do Hunter justice; when she breaks into a smile, you could almost warm your hands over the screen.
As a director, Showalter is shrewd enough to leave the funny and sad moments largely undifferentiated. Kumail, who’s auditioning for a major Montreal comedy festival while all hell breaks loose, is a promising but not-yet-sterling aspirant to the professional quipster ranks. But if his lazy, behind-the-beat rhythm doesn’t always slay on stage, it works like gangbusters from moment to moment of “The Big Sick,” where Kumail is dependably ready with a leisurely comeback: There are always chuckles to be amplified, tensions to be defused and presumptions to be dismantled.
Well, maybe not entirely dismantled. With Emily necessarily unconscious for much of the running time, this is very much Kumail’s journey of self-realization and perseverance, though it’s a bit irksome that the movie frames itself so insistently as the story of his redemption. For all its focus on Kumail’s between-two-worlds perspective, “The Big Sick” can’t help but present his conflict in a way that flatters and reinforces the enlightened Western perspective of its presumed audience.
You may roll your eyes a little, as I did, when Emily blasts Kumail for not telling his parents about her after five months of dating. (My Palestinian American wife waited more than a year to break the news to her parents that she was seeing a Chinese American guy. I’d apologize for oversharing, but then oversharing is the very reason for this movie’s existence.)
Shroff and Kher have lovely moments as Kumail’s mom and dad, but I wanted more from them than comic uptightness and dramatic outrage; ironically, their trouble communicating with their son is precisely why they don’t emerge as fully dimensional figures, as Beth and Terry do.
All of which is to say that diversity, in storytelling as in real life, is a rewarding but messy business, and “The Big Sick” is both a delightful comedy and an imperfect milestone. With any luck, we’ll look back on it someday and it won’t feel like a milestone at all.
‘The Big Sick’
Rating: R, for language including some sexual references
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood; AMC Century City 15, Century City; and the Landmark, West Los Angeles