The Big Sick is romantic and funny, but the movie is way too sprawling and ambitious to be contained by the words romantic comedy.
It's a warm, bighearted epic of assimilation, the latest iteration of a classic American story of immigrant striving — this time about a Pakistani American (Kumail Nanjiani) who feels what newly minted Americans have always felt: the pull of freedom and possibility, the thrill of being unbound by tradition.
In Nanjiani's case, it means constructing a life (sometimes secretly) that's in conflict with the wishes of his devout Muslim and aspirational parents (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff). They want him to be a lawyer; he wants to be a stand-up comedian (and is settling for Uber driver). When he excuses himself for daily prayer, he plays video games. When they bring eligible Muslim women to dinner, he feigns interest — in fact he's already in love, with an American girl named Emily Gordon (Zoe Kazan).
The story is all over the place, and is way too messy to be anything but true. Nanjiani wrote it with Gordon — now his wife — and made it with producer Judd Apatow, whose movies are known for being long and cluttered and discursive.
Here, it all works to the benefit of The Big Sick. Its wide embrace of subplots and characters is in tune with its big-tent themes. Case in point: those eligible Muslim women. In a stock comedy they'd be stiff caricatures, punch lines crafted to reinforce the trite True Love formula and Old World/New World clichés. But these women are fleshed-out individuals — beautiful, smart, sympathetic — and they register strongly, so much so that the formal matchmaking involved seems startlingly sensible, its orchestration by Kumail's parents practical and even affectionate.
Another example: Kumail's older and more dutiful brother (Adeel Akhtar) wants to know — in a way that seems right and reasonable — when Kumail is going to follow his example as a devout son and white-collar success story who can make the family proud.
All of the thoughtful characters missing from the last 10 comedies you've seen?
And we haven't even gotten to the love story, marked by Kumail's dithering. He doesn't want to lose his family or Emily, so he lies to both parties, a doomed strategy that collapses the same day as Emily, who is rushed to the hospital with a mysterious illness, and placed in a medically induced coma.
Awkwardly supervising her care are the thrust-together trio of Kumail and Emily's parents (Ray Romano, Holly Hunter). The three are ill at ease with each other and with the hospital staff, with whom they quarrel as the mystery of Emily's illness grows apace with its seriousness. (Another no-small-parts moment: Myra Lucretia Taylor as the night nurse who persuades Kumail not to move Emily to a swankier hospital.)
How does all of this manage to be funny? It helps that the movie returns periodically to Kumail's refuge at the stand-up club (comedians Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler are his friends and colleagues), and carries that playful tone with it to the hospital and to the home of Kumail's parents.
The Big Sick even finds humor (thanks to Romano and Hunter) in the frayed marriage of Emily's parents. If Kumail – not sure if Emily will wake up still hating his guts – is looking to find reassurance of a happy, long-term union, he's out of luck. This is a feature of Apatow's films (Knocked Up, This is 40), which are unfailingly honest about the ups and downs of marriage. (I don't mean to downplay the contributions of director Michael Showalter, but The Big Sick is clearly of a piece with other Apatow titles.)
That kind of candor is tricky. Sometimes it can feel like a lack of discipline. Sometimes it can feel like life.
With The Big Sick, it's definitely the latter.
The Big Sick
Directed by Michael Showalter. With Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, and Bo Burnham. Distributed by Amazon Studios.
Running time: 119 minutes.
Parent's guide: R (sexual references).
Playing at: Ritz East, AMC Voorhees 16, Bryn Mawr Film Institute, and selected area theaters.