Ah, Judd Apatow. It’s been over a decade since he led a tidy revolution in Hollywood comedy by acknowledging that dirty-joke-mongers have a great deal of vulnerability behind them. For his work as a director, I know some cinephiles who still treasure him, and others who think he got too indulgent and disappeared up his own ass somewhere in Brentwood circa This is 40 (2012). But as a producer, his enduring impact is as an incubator for comics jumping to a kind of creative, personal screen authorship, including Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Kristen Wiig, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, etc. One could argue that, among performers, comedians are the most willing—even pathologically eager—to share intimate details about themselves to an audience of strangers. So bless them for making movies. And now, with The Big Sick, Pakistani-American comic Kumail Nanjiani gets added to the list.
Nanjiani is probably best known as a supporting player on Silicon Valley, where he had the chance to score some laughs but, for the first few seasons, didn’t usually take center stage. Now, The Big Sick is a triumph. Co-written with his wife Emily V. Gordon, the movie is a semi-autobiographical comedy—Kumail plays himself, Zoe Kazan plays “Emily”—about their courtship, which was complicated by the pressures of a traditional Pakistani family and briefly interrupted when a medical emergency sent Emily into a forced coma. “An Awkward True Story”, quoth the posters, and by you now you should know that we live in a time when “awkward” carries positive connotations.
It is one of the most charming comedies of the year. The script succeeds at tackling its themes—the immigrant experience, millennial dating habits in the digital age, how different cultures approach the institution of marriage—with tremendous specificity and without ever losing sight of the chemistry at the core. The scenes of Pakistani-American life challenge the “if a character is X, they must also be Y” rule that shackles so many screen representations. The first thirty minutes between Kumail and Emily make a strong case that my generation might someday produce its own Annie Hall (1977), and that if we do, it’ll be more generous. (In Kazan’s Emily, I recognize the millennial flightiness of my own love life, but she’s too good at spotting people’s bullshit—a genuinely attractive quality for a long-term partner—to be shunted to the corner or labeled a “manic pixie dream girl”).
Director Michael Showalter, of the comedy troupe Stella, keeps the mood gentle and observational, and he balances the tone so that when the medical emergency arrives, the emotional stakes are raised without the movie ever sinking into melodrama. On the contrary, the coma is a chance to add Ray Romano and an always-welcome Holly Hunter into the comic mix as Emily’s parents. It is only in the last act when The Big Sick starts to falter, when it starts to lose its specificity by playing too close to the standard rom-com formula: the communication errors, the initial rejections, the ultimate reunions, etc. It begins to feel, in short, like a movie—and merely one movie among many others. But that might just be another heartwarming way of saying that, when it comes to how America and the Hollywood establishment churn out mass product, newcomers will get a chance.
The Big Sick is still playing in a few theaters. See it with an audience while you can.