Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan in 'The Big Sick' are the medicine we need now

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

"The Big Sick" arrives just in time to make the summer a little funnier and more honest, and a little less loud and stupid.

The movie treats the people on screen generously, and it's a romantic comedy with surprising depth of feeling, glancing on all sorts of things: race, religion, tolerance, understanding, the competitive peculiarity of stand-up comedy and its various practitioners. Primarily "The Big Sick" is a showcase for actor, writer and comedian Kumail Nanjiani ("Silicon Valley"), who co-wrote the script (overseen by producer Judd Apatow) with his wife, Emily V. Gordon.

Kumail Nanjiani, right, and Zoe Kazan star in "The Big Sick."  The movie opens Thursday at Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13 and R/C Hanover Movies.


Nanjiani spent several years honing his stand-up on Chicago comedy stages, and "The Big Sick" finds Nanjiani playing a version of his earlier self. One night after a set, he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan, delightful and moving in her best screen work to date), a University of Chicago psychology student and aspiring therapist. Their chemistry is such that a few dates into their relationship, she's happy to see past her new man's sad-comedian apartment, financed by Nanjiani's sideline as an Uber driver.

Nanjiani no longer prays, but he hasn't the nerve to tell his traditional Pakistani Muslim parents (Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher) about his turning away from religion, or his dating a white girl. His mother lines up a steady stream of eligible Pakistani-American women for her son to marry; their pictures and resumes go in a cigar box, and Nanjiani keeps the stash a secret from Emily. She wonders when she'll meet his family; he wonders if he can postpone the meeting approximately forever.

Around the 45-minute mark "The Big Sick" makes good on its title. Shortly after they break up, Emily lands in the hospital with an unexplained, debilitating lung infection. She's put in a medically induced coma; Nanjiani informs his ex-girlfriend's North Carolina parents of the news.

When Holly Hunter and Ray Romano arrive on the scene, the audience paradoxically breathes easy and knows this medical crisis is in excellent performance hands. Their roles take an increasingly prominent position in "The Big Sick" as the movie shifts into a tale of uneasy allies working through a very tough situation.

From left, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano and Kumail Nanjiani star in "The Big Sick."  The movie opens Thursday at Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13 and R/C Hanover Movies.


It's a drag to have Kazan drop out of the movie as long as she does, but she makes such a beguiling impression in the early scenes that the handoff works anyway.

The director is Michael Showalter, who co-wrote "Wet Hot American Summer." His jobs here were twofold: tone management and ensemble control. The vibe belongs to Apatow, whose freewheeling, panning-for-gold improvisational influence leads to some wonderful results. (Romano, in particular, gets the space he needs to score with riffs on everything from hospital-cafeteria tuna sandwiches to the perils of infidelity.)

Nanjiani takes it easy in his first starring role; his timing is sneaky-deadly, so relaxed it's almost imperceptible. Two years ago Amy Schumer scored in her Apatow-produced showcase "Trainwreck"; "The Big Sick" likewise has its standard-issue rom-com beats, but like that movie, this one is built cleverly around a specific, idiosyncratic comic personality.

The throwaway jokes are plentiful and often inspired; when Emily calls for an Uber after her first night with Nanjiani, it's his phone that rings, 3 feet away, since he's the closest Uber driver in the neighborhood. During one club scene, Nanjiani's heckled by a frat-boy boor ("Go back to ISIS!") and the moment's authentically discomforting and entirely plausible. When Romano's math professor character asks Nanjiani what his "stance" is on 9/11, the reply (clearly a well-worn joke in Nanjiani's back pocket) slays, reliably. The right deadpan can sell anything.

At the Sundance Film Festival, "The Big Sick" played like a laugh-driven riot, which the movie, at heart, is not. Festival audiences can do funny things to, and for, what's actually on the screen. This one never really had that "Trainwreck" wallop; rather, Nanjiani and Kazan and company treat the material with a light touch, and when things turn heavy, it seems true and right.

"Loving somebody this much sucks," Romano says at one point, regarding his daughter in a coma. A different director, a different actor might've overplayed the moment; "The Big Sick" has the confidence to let the audience come to Nanjiani and Gordon's fictionalized real-life situation, rather than yank us in, kicking and screaming.

3.5 out of 4 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language including some sexual references)
Running time: 2:04