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‘The Big Sick’ is a festival anomaly: The comedy of Judd Apatow with the tender drama of Sundance

Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in "The Big Sick."
(Nicole Rivelli / Sundance Institute)

Not long into “The Big Sick,” the new film produced by Judd Apatow, the lead character makes a choice one rarely sees in a mainstream U.S. comedy.

A young Pakistani Muslim visiting his parents for dinner tells them he’s going downstairs to pray, per their wishes. Then he heads to the basement, takes out a prayer mat, sets a timer for five minutes and does everything but pray before returning upstairs when the clock runs out.

For the record:

5:32 p.m. Aug. 18, 2022This piece was updated with the information about the film’s sale to Amazon.

Many comedies — and certainly many comedies under Apatow’s guiding hand — would play the scene for maximum (and likely raunchy) laughs. (In many comedies, the lead character wouldn’t be a Pakistani Muslim either, but that’s another matter.) Yet a more serious tone percolates here. The son has given up tradition, but hardly happily, and there’s something a little touching, even sad, about him having to conceal his choice.

The moment provides an early signal of a film far more interested in sympathizing with alternate points of view than in exploiting them for easy laughs. That idea is underscored later when the character and his parents argue angrily about the assimilationist direction their son’s life has taken — a scene you’d more likely find in a Salman Rushdie novel than the film of a man who made “Knocked Up.”

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Ah, but Apatow is not the only influence here. The director is Michael Showalter, also behind the zany humanity of last year’s hit “Hello, My Name Is Doris.” And the character is an aspiring stand-up comedian played by Kumail Nanjiani, the Karachi-born “Silicon Valley” star. Nanjiani spent three years writing the script with his wife, Emily Gordon, basing it on the couple’s rocky, real-life courtship — and, equally important, his own fraught relationship with his traditionalist Muslim parents.

When “The Big Sick” made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday night, it instantly distinguished itself as an early breakout and something of a unicorn. [Spoiler alert for the next paragraph: Skip ahead if you want to avoid.]

Starring Zoe Kazan as Emily (and with terrific supporting turns by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as her parents), “Sick” traces what happens when — deep breath — the young couple fall in love, he conceals from Emily his parents’ insistence that he marry a Pakistani woman (and her existence from his parents), the couple have an explosive breakup, she becomes unexpectedly seriously ill, he has to navigate her parents while she’s incapacitated and, oh yes, also pursues his faltering career as a two-bit comedian.

Indeed, for a small movie, Nanjiani packs a lot of ambition on its shoulders: dating, career paths, intergenerational religious conflict, mortality, Muslims in post-9/11 America and the plight of the stand-up comic (hey, it’s still an Apatow movie).

Both Apatow and Nanjiani, for all his dry-as-the Kharan Desert delivery, are keen to make the comedic moments ripple with danger. When Romano’s dad character fumbily asks Kumail his thoughts about 9/11, the Pakistani American replies, “You’re asking my position on 9/11? Well, I’m anti. [Pause] We lost 19 of our best men.”

But it’s also a movie with emotion overflowing at every turn. I’ve rarely found the redemption in an Apatow movie — for all the talk about “heart” and “sweetness” — to feel especially close to how those moments play out in real life. Not so here, where the feeling of missed opportunities and human connection resonate like the real thing.

Partly that’s a function of an indie/Sundance movie. And partly it’s a function of Nanjiani and Gordon pouring their own lives into the script. (They’ve now been married 10 years.)

I asked Nanjiani at an after-party how they found the dramatic-comedy balance. “It was about trying to make a movie like ‘Tootsie’ or ‘Broadcast News’ — a movie where the dramatic scenes are really dramatic and the comedic scenes are really funny,” he said. “Most dramatic comedies now try too much to walk a line, they’re only a little funny and only a little dramatic.”

Of course, trying to do really funny and really serious could make a film wildly bi-tonal, swinging too much from one moment to the next. For the most part, he avoids this problem.

Taking the stage at the premiere, Gordon noted her smooth relationship with Nanjiani’s parents, and she was asked how they finally reached a good place. She deferred to the man who was for so long caught between them. “A lot of [messed-up] dinners,” Nanjiani quipped, echoing a line from the movie. “We took the first step of 40 on the road to reconciliation. [Pause] We’re in the low 30s right now.”

“The Big Sick” was purchased at the festival for $12 million by Amazon Studios. Whether they will give it a “Trainwreck”-style wide release remains to be seen, but they’ve got a movie that’s a rarity: funny, emo and personal.

As Apatow said at the premiere, tipping his cap to the screenwriting couple, “The whole movie is a giving gesture. And I commend you for sharing.”

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT


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