Romantic comedy is so ubiquitous — so familiar and overworked and recycled — that nobody expects originality from the genre.
Then along comes “The Big Sick” to take us by surprise.
Directed by Michael Showalter, produced by Judd Apatow and penned by stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, the film starts out in familiar boy-meets-girl territory, only to take us to unexpected places.
Nanjiani, a regular on cable’s “Silicon Valley,” is a Pakistani who came to the U.S. for college. Here he plays a slightly fictionalized version of himself, also named Kumail.
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The film’s first hour will seem more than a little familiar to fans of “Master of None,” the much-awarded Netflix comedy from Aziz Ansari, the son of Indian immigrants.
While working as an Uber driver, Kumail struggles to make it on the comedy circuit, determined not to rely too much on his ethnicity for laugh fodder. His deadpan persona is belied by the dry hilarity of his zingers.
His mother and father (Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher) expect him to be a good Muslim (when visiting them, Kumail dutifully retreats to the basement with his prayer rug but spends his time there digging through boxes of childhood belongings).
Moreover, our hero is subjected to a steady stream of available Pakistani woman (they exhibit everything from firm self-confidence to embarrassment and desperation) who just happen to be in the neighborhood when he’s having dinner with the folks.
Kumail hasn’t the heart to announce that he’s not interested in a traditional arranged marriage.
Romance intervenes with Emily (Zoe Kazan), who gently heckles Kumail during a show then sticks around for a little intense cross-cultural interaction. In one of the film’s goofiest moments, she decides to end their night of passion by calling for a ride; since he’s the closest Uber driver, his cellphone goes off.
Like “The Big Sick’s” comedy, its romance is unforced and natural. We get to revel in the giddy possibilities of new love, but of course there are always issues.
In fact, Kumail and Emily have broken up when he receives word that she’s in the hospital with a mysterious infection. This is the “big sick” of the title; soon Emily is in a medically induced coma as the M.D.s frantically try to identify the problem.
At the same time Kumail is thrown into an uneasy partnership with Emily’s parents, Terry and Beth (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, both terrific), who have traveled in from out of town to deal with the crisis. They’re not sure exactly how to view Kumail’s presence (he’s their daughter’s ex-boyfriend, after all).
It’s hard to overstate just how effectively “The Big Sick” balances its romantic inclinations against life-or-death drama, or how its comedy co-exists with potential heartbreak.
No doubt it works as well as it does because it was drawn from life. Early in their marriage Nanjiani and Gordon were hit with a near-fatal health crisis; those emotions were still fresh enough to give their screenplay both head and heart.
If “The Big Sick” has a significant drawback it’s the same one that plagues just about every Apatow-backed production — it goes on too long. Shortened by 15 minutes it would absolutely sing.
(At Alamo Drafthouse, Barrywoods, Glenwood Arts, Town Center.)
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘The Big Sick’
Rated R for language including some sexual references.