Judd Apatow has a track record of building projects for talented comedians to move to the next level, highlighting their skill sets in a way that makes entire films hinge on their abilities. Think Steve Carell in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Seth Rogen in “Knocked Up” or Amy Schumer in “Trainwreck.” He only produced Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick,” but it continues this pattern, as the director helped build the project around the multi-talented stand-up comedian and star of “Silicon Valley,” Kumail Nanjiani. Not only should this movie make Nanjiani a star, but the entire project is based on his own life, focusing on his relationship with his girlfriend Emily Gordon, who co-wrote the film with him. This deeply personal aspect of the film lends it authenticity often missing from romantic dramedies, and allows Nanjiani and Showalter to imbue the film with so much more character-based truth than we usually see from the genre. It’s the best romantic comedy in years.
Kumail plays a version of his younger self—an Uber driver by day and a stand-up comedian by night in Chicago. One night, a beautiful young lady gets his attention from the crowd, and he works up the courage to talk to her at the bar after his set. Her name is Emily (Zoe Kazan) and she’s a grad school student at University of Chicago. There’s an instant connection but both halves of this couple are believably apprehensive. Emily doesn’t want to get hurt again—we later learn she was married at a very young age and is divorced—but Kumail faces a massive cultural wall in that his Pakistani family wouldn’t possibly hear of a white girlfriend. In fact, his mother keeps a chair open at dinner next to Kumail whenever he comes over for this week’s Pakistani girl who just happens to “drop by.” As they’re aggressively trying to arrange a marriage for Kumail, he starts to fall for Emily. Meanwhile, his stand-up career takes off, and Apatow lovingly captures the behind-the-scenes world of stand-up life in a way that recalls Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice.”
That’s the first half of “The Big Sick,” but you may be understandably wondering about the title at this point. After a horrendous fight in which they break-up over Kumail’s unwillingness to tell his parents about Emily, she suffers a vicious lung infection that forces doctors to put her into a medically-induced coma. As the infection spreads to her kidneys and heart, Kumail is forced to interact with Emily’s parents for the first time, played with remarkable delicacy and truth by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. This is where “The Big Sick” transcends its rom-com set-up, capturing how relationships are often forged through trauma and how we sometimes only know how we’ll react to stress when it’s placed right in front of us. Nanjiani stress-eats and panics, but he stays. He can’t let Emily go.
The echoes in “The Big Sick” go back further than Apatow, often recalling one his clear inspirations, the great James L. Brooks. Like Brooks, Showalter's film deftly blends laugh out loud moments (the premiere crowd laughed so often that dialogue was regularly drowned out) with emotional truth and character-driven drama. Rom-coms so often rely on exaggerated behavior—set pieces, if you will—to get their joke. Even Apatow has been a victim of this. But “The Big Sick” doesn’t resort to set pieces. Every joke feels like it comes from the characters, and then Romano and Hunter show up to add a layer or depth and gravity to the piece. Yes, they get a few laughs of their own, but they’re basically in a drama, playing two people who might lose their daughter. They’re both absolutely fantastic. The best Hunter has been in years and possibly the best Romano has ever been on film.
Having said that, the movie belongs to Nanjiani. It is as smart, authentic and sweet as his comedy. To be fair, he sometimes falters ever so slightly in the big emotional scenes, but he absolutely nails the quieter moments, capturing a man thinking, feeling, and responding to the moment as it happens. Kazan is great too, even though the movie sidelines her for most of the second half. She make such an impact in the first half that you still feel her presence, and you understand why Kumail can’t leave her hospital room.
Like so many recent Apatow films, “The Big Sick” is arguably too long and gets somewhat repetitive in its final act, but it has built up so much goodwill by that point that I just didn’t care. The truth of it all makes the length forgivable. I enjoyed spending time with these people so much, even down to the supporting characters of Nanjiani’s family and colleagues at the club (including Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham). It couldn’t sound cheesier, but I was sad to see them go. That’s often the sign of a great comedy—when you just enjoy the time spent with these people so much that flaws are pushed aside. This is a great comedy.