By Michael Aushenker
Opening June 23 and going wide July 14, Kumail Nanjiani stars in The Big Sick, his autobiographical pet project—based on his real-life courtship with future wife Emily V. Gordon and their struggle after she is diagnosed with adult-onset Stills disease—and between the film’s Sundance buzz this year and Nanjiani’s signature butt-of-all-jokes geek Dinesh on HBO’s Silicon Valley, this Lionsgate-Amazon co-release arrives on a wave of anticipation.
Nanjiani and Gordon co-wrote the screenplay with the guidance of producer and comedy zeitgeist filmmaker Judd Apatow. Michael Showalter (best known as co-writer with David Wain of the Wet Hot American Summer franchise) takes a major career step forward directing.
The movie also co-stars Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as the parents of Emily, played here by Zoe Kazan.
In THE BIG SICK, Nanjiani plays a years-ago version of himself as a struggling stand-up comic in Chicago who becomes caught in the cross-cultural crossfire of his Pakistani immigrant family and his deepening romance with Emily, a blond Caucasian he meets after she heckles him during one of his comedy club routines.
Reeling from the toggle between Kumail’s overbearingly traditional Pakistani immigrant parents (who hilariously and repeatedly try to set Kumail up in an arranged marriage) and the trappings of modern romance, Kumail and Emily’s budding relationship has its ups and downs right before Emily is plunged into darkness due to her emerging illness. After Emily lands in a medically induced coma, the tense situation creates an unlikely trio, yoking Kumail with Emily’s parents, Terry (Romano) and Beth (Hunter), in a weeks-long triangle of worry and antics.
Comedy nerds may experience some déjà vu watching The Big Stick. Medical dilemma aside, Kumail and Emily’s grand love affair and its cross-cultural obstacles had its thunder stolen by season one of Master of None, where many of these issues were already explored and entertained (more deftly and with more depth) in the grand love affair between Dev and Rachel.
But like with that couple, it is the actress who is the secret weapon here: just as Noel Wells brought much nuance and naturalistic charm to her role opposite Aziz Ansari, Kazan does so here with Emily. Which is not to say Nanjiani is merely rehashing Dinesh here. He’s not. However, he’s not as good a dramatic actor when the movie calls him to be.
The Big Sick is entertaining enough, if overlong and melodramatic; not the kind of wearing-out-its-welcome-early bloat found in Apatow-helmed features Funny People and This Is 40 (Barry Mendel, producer of those movies, also co-produces this film), but dragging in places (perhaps suffering from a touch of Apatow-style self-indulgence). Meanwhile, a few minor details, such as Kumail’s “bag of devotion,” could’ve used more set-up earlier in the film.
To be expected by anyone familiar with Nanjiani’s stand-up act and interviews (such as in last month’s New Yorker), the dramedy comes loaded with jokes riffing off of Kumail’s cultural identity issues as a Pakistani American afloat in mainstream white culture, but it’s not enough to lift the film out of the soapy suds.
On an aside, Apatow’s own films have received criticism for its conspicuous placement of ethnicity in the background of his stories, and in The Big Sick, the only Asian faces in the film—Nanjiani, his family and family friends aside—are (you guessed it!) the doctors and nurses at the hospital. But this is a minor stray observation, not a major complaint, given the movie’s A-story, which benefits from richly comedic performances of Adeel Akhtar as Kumail’s brother Naveed; and Anupam Kehr and Zenobia Shroff as Kumail’s parents. Concurrently, Romano plays Terry as a straight man to Hunter’s feisty, two-fisted Beth.
The movie has its contrivances, especially when Kumail’s and Emily’s parents are stuck together. And even the most casual of viewers schooled on enough rom-coms will see that very Hollywood-ish last scene coming a mile away.
However, it’s great to see multicultural stories being told at a time when we obviously need more human-sized stories at our year-round CG-saturated multiplexes.