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The Big Sick

An awkward true story

Judd Apatow’s durable formula of timid man geeks, far-more-mature girlfriends and their huggably awkward parents gets a welcome infusion of cross-cultural tension – along with some scary medical realities – in The Big Sick, a dynamite romantic comedy of intimate proportions. Apatow is only the producer here (Michael Showalter directs with a minimum of stylistic intrusion), but the creative prime mover is actor-writer Kumail Nanjiani, better known as Silicon Valley’s peevish computer coder, Dinesh. Developing an autobiographical script with his co-screenwriter wife, the tv producer and podcaster Emily V. Gordon, Nanjiani shapes his story of a Chicago stand-up comic’s wobbly rise, a trajectory altered by love, illness and some much-needed backbone.

Hoodie-clad, backpacked Kumail (Nanjiani, modulating his nerd persona with impressive emotional depth) turns his Pakistani heritage into a source of laughs for club crowds. He’s got a dense one-man show involving charts about the game of cricket, and his sarcastic jokes often exploit racial anxieties. (Loudly arguing with his brother in a restaurant, he assures onlookers, ‘We hate terrorists – it’s okay.’) One night, Kumail’s routine is interrupted by a smiling new fan, Emily (Zoe Kazan, completely owning her scenes), and they spark up the kind of banter-crammed flirtation that movies like this have perfected. But Kumail can’t tell his fiercely attentive suburban parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, both excellent) about the white girl he’s seeing. Instead, he stashes their photos of prospective fiancées in a cigar box and rides out a courtship that he secretly thinks is doomed to fail.

Already, The Big Sick is scoring points on familiar rom-com territory, so when it suddenly morphs into a completely different film – a bracingly sophisticated one – you’ll want to cry with happiness. (The real tears will come soon enough.) Only weeks after their relationship hits the skids, Emily falls ill with a frightening, unexplained malady and Kumail is called to the hospital to authorize a medically induced coma. Now come Emily’s scowling parents, who know all too well about their daughter’s heartbreak, administered by this stranger who won’t leave the ICU. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are the film’s secret weapons, both of them uncorking magnificently real performances flecked with resentment.

The film is saying something both obvious and unusually wise: When you want someone, you often have to woo their parents. But more subtly, The Big Sick implies that if the love is real, the wooing can happen even when you’re lying unconscious on the brink of death. Director Showalter does a beautiful job of pairing up Nanjiani and Romano’s similar slump – you smile at what a perfect almost-father and son they already are – and he steers Hunter to a rapprochement of uncommon complexity and grace. And we thought we were watching a Judd Apatow film.

– Josh Rothkopf, Time Out


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Running Time: 
Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano
Official site: 
Screenplay by: 
Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani

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