By Joe Hammerschmidt
For those still in need of a heartfelt humanist comedy this summer season, one needn’t look further than Judd Apatow and his large list of contacts, one which only grows after each new project. Reconnecting with old friend Michael Showalter, and a roster of new friends led by Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani, Apatow has made magic spark with The Big Sick. The first scene makes it too obvious Judd’s stamp is all over this project, yet here his relationships make for a higher potency.
As an underdog story, Nanjiani, playing an almost autobiographical version of himself is that hero we surprisingly deserve. A Pakistani-American immigrant in Chicago paying the bills as an Uber driver, with a little stand-up on the side, and a nosy family to deal with, forcing what could be a terrible arranged marriage onto him. Even with sitting down with potential mates for dinner with the rest of his family, it satisfies him none. An almost forbidden romance with Emily (Zoe Kazan as a fictional variant of his real-life wife) is what’s making him the most happiest, even when she’s trying to keep her distance away. Even as their time together is numbered, he’s pulled back into her life when a mysterious illness lands her into a coma. From there, a complete culture clash is unavoidable as Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter, Ray Romano) reenter the picture.
As a romantic tale, the dramatic realism is impossible to ignore. Nanjiani, with writing partner/wife Emily Gordon appear effortless in adapting this tale from the earliest known years of their relationship. Some elements may seem rather far-fetched, but they’re no less emotional. For starters, neither of them actually broke up before/during/after the coma in real life; that was a fairly incorporated dramatic linchpin put in place. Nanjiani and Kazan bear all their hearts can offer to their relationship; even when Emily is indisposed, her presence and her condition leaves enough of a lump in the throat for Kumail, the parents, and for the audience.
As a story about family, the tension slaps you in the face multiple times. Kumail’s family, parents Azmat and Sharmeen (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) and brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) love him to death, but still can’t quite stand by his life choices, left to experience total heartbreak while Nanjiani hides how he truly feels about the tradition they’re enforcing. Mom can’t stand him sometimes, Dad usually keeps his head low, and Naveed’s the closest, yet only because he has to be. There’s never a time when that is NOT refreshing. On the other side, Beth (Hunter) and Terry (Romano) are almost on a completely different planet compared to Kumail’s family. One’s the guns-a-blazin’ mama bear who won’t let any conflict stand in her way, and Hunter shows literally zero hesitation in her part; the other’s the guy who’d be most welcome at a family BBQ, after bringing the dish everyone loves, a part of Romano the world may be empty without. This pairing, struggling to rediscover their own marital bliss, may be the strongest in the whole film, in that it serves the balance between Kumail’s floundering with Emily, and Sharmeen crumbling downward, taking Azmat with him.
Ultimately, as a comedy in general, and one with a raw timeliness to it, this film holds no punches with serving a side of darkness with the bright comic wit. There are always times when humor isn’t funny, or it’s ill advised, or the timing is unnecessarily inappropriate when struggling with a bleak prognosis. In those times, the laughs touch the gut a little deeper, they mean more, they show more resonance with one’s spirit, good or bad. And this is where the film excels the most. DIrector Showalter (best known for Wet Hot American Summer) is on a literal highwire much of the film in juggling yuks with tears, then switching the two out to see how the other reacts. The pain of families breaking up, of one person facing death, and of a hero standing out of the crowd to discover what matters most with himself, transplanted in a situation that is otherwise expectedly funny more or less adds to the reality of it all.
For The Big Sick, an opportunity arises for Kumail Nanjiani to finally shine as a leading man, which he adapts to perfectly, and for Apatow to flex his muscle as a master of expressing emotion by way of healing comedy. Not only does this succeed as a basic romantic comedy, but as a human story, something that may be impossible to find in anything else this year, without trying to detach some fantasy element from it. Be prepared to laugh, cry, and repeat; and if any other emotional responses occur, don’t try to fight them. You’ll know how easily you’re feeling along with these characters, and in the best way. (A)
“The Big Sick” opens Friday in Seattle (Regal Meridian), with additional theaters to follow; rated R for language including some sexual references