Stand-up comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani steps out from his Silicon Valley ensemble duties for The Big Sick, a tale loosely based on his nontraditional courtship with his real-life wife Emily Gordon (played here by Zoe Kazan), with whom he also co-wrote the script. Nanjiani plays himself, a middling Chicago stand-up who is heckled one night by a young woman and is in a relationship with her shortly thereafter. Sick follows the likes of comedian Mike Birbiglia's 2012 autobiographical Sleepwalk With Me, though Nanjiani himself has admitted to taking artistic license from the actual events that led to his marriage.
As a young Pakistani man, Nanjiani is supposed to accept an arranged marriage situation. But when Emily is placed in a medically induced coma to combat a lung infection, he slowly realizes he's in love with her despite his parents' wishes. Along for the ride are Emily's parents, played fantastically by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, both of whom outshine Nanjiani at every turn; it isn't that he's not talented, nor does the script fall short per se, it's really more like he's just not there yet as a dramatic actor, and it's never more apparent than when he shares screen time with the veteran actors. Romano provides the best performance of his career as a lovably goofy father grappling with the aftermath of his own infidelity and the frantic emotions of having a sick child. Hunter is, as always, incredible (find us a film where she isn't—we dare you) and often it seems like scenes without them are simply eating up time before they return.
Support from SNL's Aidy Bryant and consummate weirdo stand-up musician Bo Burnham is much appreciated as well, though both hardly feel as well-used as they might have been. It is, after all, Nanjiani's life story, or some of it anyway, but Bryant and Burnham are both so funny in their own right that it seems a misstep.
The rest starts to drag toward the end and there are only so many "my culture is different" jokes that can land with enough oomph. Regardless, The Big Sick is a perfectly fine first step for the relative newcomer Nanjiani and boasts enough laugh-out-loud moments to justify itself. Direction from Wet Hot American Summer alum Michael Showalter follows a relatively familiar indie-esque bent, but make no mistake—this is a Judd Apatow film (he produced it). It comes complete with the Apatow "will they/won't they/they did!" formulaic cuteness we've come to expect from the Knocked Up director/producer. And that's fine. Just fine.
-A bit too long for what it is, Nanjiani isn't quite there dramatically yet
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The Big Sick
Directed by Showalter
With Nanjiani, Kazan, Romano and Hunter
Violet Crown, Regal, R, 120 min.