'The Big Sick': Film Review | Sundance 2017

A funny and tender drawn-from-life love story.

Kumail Nanjiani stars (alongside Zoe Kazan) in the true-life tale of his relationship with wife and co-screenwriter Emily Gordon in Michael Showalter's first straight-ahead love story.

On the rise for some time as a stand-up and comic actor, Silicon Valley's Kumail Nanjiani comes into his own in The Big Sick. It would be embarrassing for him not to, as this is his own life's story — a fictionalized account of how his girlfriend's grave illness jolted him into shaking off some young-adult immaturity and making a commitment. Real-world wife Emily Gordon co-wrote the script with him, handing her role off to Zoe Kazan, while producer Judd Apatow (alongside frequent partner Barry Mendel) continues his streak of helping young comic talents develop the screen personae that will carry them forth into the world. A wholly commercial film — one might complain that reality's quirks have been sanded down slightly too much toward that end — it should mark a big step up business-wise for both its star and director Michael Showalter.

Nanjiani plays Kumail, a Pakistani immigrant trying to break into comedy while ignoring his tradition-minded parents' suggestions that he finally take the LSAT. He's also fending off the string of women they clumsily try fixing him up with, but is unable simply to declare he'll never consent to an arranged marriage.

That's a dilemma he hides from Emily (Kazan), who meets him at a stand-up show and soon falls into a classic "I don't want a relationship" relationship. The film doesn't need a montage to explain how solidly the two click, but things fall apart when she learns that, knowing they'll disown him, Kumail hasn't told his parents he's dating a white woman. The relationship seems to be over when Emily is admitted to the hospital for a "weird flu or something"; he gets to her bedside just in time to give consent to doctors who want to induce a coma, and to call her parents — who, unlike Kumail's, know everything there is to know about the couple's failed affair.

Ray Romano gets to stretch out as the father, a weathered math teacher trying to get through this crisis, but Holly Hunter threatens very seriously to steal the film. At first brutally chilly in thanking Kumail for his help and trying to send him packing, her Beth eventually accepts that he's going to keep hanging out as doctors learn more and more disturbing things about Emily's condition. When Beth unexpectedly finds herself solidly in the young man's corner, Hunter commits with hilarious ferocity.

Fortunately for Nanjiani, Hunter can also be generous, extending maternal sympathy in his direction as the story progresses; when she's not around, the actor is more than ready to run the gauntlet of emotions required in his inevitable showdown with Kumail's own parents.

Having directed the weirdly pitched dramedy Hello, My Name Is Doris and co-written David Wain's wink-wink rom-com deconstruction They Came Together, it's hard to see what inspired the writers and producers to team with Showalter. But here he sheds every smart-ass and absurdist tendency, delivering such a straightforward and heartfelt picture many longtime fans may accuse him of selling out. Nanjiani's fans, however, have no such cause for complaint.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: FilmNation Entertainment, Apatow Company
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupani Euler, Zienobia Sfiroff, Adeel Akfitar, Bo Burnhani, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler
Director: Michael Showalter
Screenwriters: Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani
Producers: Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel
Executive producers: Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, Glen Basner, Ben Browning, Jeremy Kipp Walker
Director of photography: Brian Burgoyne
Production designer: Brandon Tonner-ConnollyCostume designer: Sarah Mae Burton
Editor: Robert Nassau
Composer: Michael Andrews
Casting director: Gayle Keller
Sales: Rena Ronson, UTA; Glen Basner, FilmNation

Not rated, 119 minutes