And now I’ve found the romantic comedy of the summer and perhaps the year. Nice to have that squared away. Kumail Nanjiani, the Pakistani-American stand-up comic who has pilfered scenes on TV’s Silicon Valley and in such films as Central Intelligence and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, found that the real-life story of his marriage to his wife Emily Gordon was better than anything a Hollywood screenwriter could invent, so he and Gordon wrote The Big Sick. Currently playing at AMC Parks at Arlington, it will expand this weekend to more theaters in Tarrant County.
If you don’t know the story, Nanjiani was born in Karachi and raised in a strict Muslim family that emigrated to America. His parents’ desire to arrange his marriage to a Pakistani girl led him to hide the fact that he was seeing a white American woman, until Gordon became deathly ill with a mystery disease and had to be put in a medically induced coma for several weeks while doctors figured out what she had. In the film, Nanjiani plays a version of his younger self, a struggling comic in the Chicago area who makes ends meet as an Uber driver. Zoe Kazan portrays Gordon’s fictional alter ego Emily Gardner, a psychology grad student who good-naturedly heckles him at one of his gigs.
This movie bolts out of the gate thanks to its script and the direction by Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris). The Chicago comedy scene, with its petty jealousies and people always looking for their break, is observed closely. Kumail’s family, far from being the killjoys you might expect, are funny enough to merit their own movie, what with his dad (Anupam Kher) describing how he “hacked” his cousin’s Facebook page and his brother (Adeel Akhtar) enthusiastically going to a batting cage and shrieking in fear every time he hits a ball. Under his family’s prodding about his comedy career, Kumail delivers a nonplussed assessment of Malala Yousafzai as if she were a fellow comic: “She really just has that one story. She gets a lot of play from that.” Kazan, lively as a spritz of lemon, sends up enough contentious sparks that you understand why a guy might stay by her bedside for weeks while she has a tube down her throat. As for Nanjiani, he and his wife write him a couple of stellar set pieces like the one where Kumail calls Emily’s parents in North Carolina (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) and ill-advisedly tries to be casual while informing them about her condition. The most memorable bit comes when Emily’s dad awkwardly asks Kumail’s “stance” on 9/11. Kumail responds with a joke that might get him killed in certain comedy clubs, but here it wins you over with its sheer outrageousness.
This is all delightful, but the movie loses some of its surefootedness in its back half, as Emily continues to lie comatose. Kumail’s comedian’s perspective on the world of hospitals and doctors that he’s plunged into doesn’t yield as much as a film like 50/50, and Obvious Child did better with the scene where the stand-up’s deepest fears come bubbling to the surface during his set. The bit where an idiot frat boy heckles Kumail about ISIS isn’t as galvanizing as it should be, nor is the inevitable one where Kumail finally comes clean to his parents. The writers are trying to mimic the messiness of real life, and they succeed with Emily’s reaction to seeing Kumail when she wakes up, but they run into trouble keeping the laughs going while they do that.
Still, The Big Sick is undeniably something new. It’s not just a movie where the Muslim guy gets to be a romantic lead rather than a terrorist or a guy living in a war-torn region. It’s a Muslim comedy, something American audiences haven’t had much exposure to. The Middle East is full of cut-ups, but they make jokes that are specific to the cultures that they live in and the governments that they live under. This movie’s comic perspective is specific to America and the Muslims who occupy a particular precarious place in it. We recognize Jewish humor and black humor as distinctive types of comedy rooted in those groups’ particular struggles, and we know that American humor would be much poorer without them. Comedy nerd that I am, I can dream of this movie helping Muslim humor emerge in the future. For now, though, this movie is thoroughly charming, the more so because its offscreen love story helped bring it onto our screens.
The Big Sick
Starring Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan. Directed by Michael Showalter. Written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. Rated R.