It is hard to imagine writing a review of Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick that doesn’t reference either Judd Apatow or Aziz Ansari, so I’m letting you know up front that I will weave both of them into this piece.
As the director of movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Trainwreck, while also producing Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Bridesmaids, Apatow lords over a comedic fiefdom with a magnanimous degree of respect for his collaborators. The brand, which bears his personal and indelible seal of approval, embraces outrageously funny people burdened with potentially crippling foibles. They are smart but ill equipped to pass in a world that has no daily need for either their sometimes-bracing wit or their quirky intellects. Stories from the Apatow cinematic universe tend to be long and winding, with diversionary pit stops or cultural speed bumps that necessitate deceleration rather than punchy and unsettling narrative leaps.
The Big Sick, which Apatow produced, ambles along like an afternoon stroll on a mild summer day, with the audience comfortably in the company of Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani from Silicon Valley), a stand-up comic and Uber driver living in Chicago. Originally from Pakistan, Kumail deals with the everyday realities of American duality. He embraces some of the cultural aspects of his Pakistani roots — dinners with his family that include his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) constantly inviting available Pakistani-American women over in the hopes of finding a match for him — while risking himself onstage in pursuit of laughs and the occasional romantic hook-up.
Like Steve Carell’s nerdy protagonist in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Kumail has found respite in the routines that makes up his life. He’s aware of his situation and even expresses a degree of curiosity about it, but he hasn’t been shaken up enough to alter his path. Until Emily (Zoe Kazan), a grad student enjoying a night out with friends from school, shows up and gently interrupts his set one night. They flirt in a decidedly low-key way and cap off their one-night stand that neither of them is quite ready to end.
The rhythm of their romance feels natural and unhurried, which makes sense because it is based on Nanjiani’s own courtship of his wife, Emily Gordon, who co-wrote the script with him. But the title looms, alerting us to the idea that this isn’t a typical romcom. Kumail and Emily break-up, once she discovers that he’s been hiding the truth about their relationship from his parents and continuing to sit through arranged dinners. A short time later, Emily gets sick and Kumail signs off on paperwork to put her in a medically induced coma. Then her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) arrive.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so the saying goes, and The Big Sick serves as corroborating evidence of the claim. Kumail bonds awkwardly with Emily’s family and begins to question his relationship with his own family and culture, but the narrative works best when focusing on Kumail’s quiet discovery that what’s been missing from his life all along has been Emily.
I told you I would also mention Ansari. The obvious connection between Ansari and Nanjiani is their shared Muslim background (and their later wandering from the faith). In the Netflix original series Master of None, Ansari has — over the course of two seasons — deftly laid bare the mundane complexities of relationships and religion in contemporary interactions. Ansari’s character in the series is a struggling actor instead of a comic, but humor is ever present. While not laboring for punch lines, many of the series’ situations strive to make hard points.
In contrast, Nanjiani and Gordon create scenes where the laugh lines are sometimes swallowed up, like a Jazz singer breaking up the rhythm by dropping a syllable at the end of a phrase. And the clearest examples of this come from Nanjiani’s performance. He embodies the looseness we’ve come to expect and appreciate from an Apatow joint, taking the effect to another level with a confidence that belies the effort to fashion interactions that hover uncomfortably. We’re not sure if we’re supposed to laugh, cry or grab hold of Kumail and just give him a hug.
The Big Sick signals the arrival of a new prince in the comic kingdom. (Opens Friday at area theaters.) (R) Grade: A-