Interesting anecdotes don’t always make for interesting movies; your story may kill at parties, but that doesn’t mean it belongs on the big screen. In The Big Sick, stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who plays Dinesh on Silicon Valley, and Emily V. Gordon, the writer and former therapist he married, dramatize the rocky first year of their relationship, with Nanjiani starring as a lightly fictionalized version of himself. That may sound, in general synopsis, like a story better told over dinner and drinks; besides friends, family, and fans of the podcast the two co-host, who was clamoring for a feature-length glimpse into the couple’s courtship? But there was more than the usual dating-scene obstacles threatening their future together. Collaborating on the screenplay for The Big Sick,Nanjiani and Gordon have made a perceptive, winning romantic comedy from those obstacles, including the unforeseen emergency that provides the film its title.
For a while, we could simply be watching a conventional date movie, albeit one defined by the nerdish comic voice of its married creators. On Silicon Valley, Nanjiani plays the lovelorn loser routine to a hilt, but he’s an appealing romantic lead in The Big Sick, balancing his quick sardonic wit with sweetly awkward sincerity. His “Kumail,” a struggling Chicago comedian who drives for Uber on the side (despite its real-life roots, the film is set in the here and now), meets funny, smart psychology student Emily (Zoe Kazan, immensely charming as Gordon’s onscreen surrogate). The two hit it off quickly, settling blissfully into a relationship that director and Wet Hot American Summer alum Michael Showalter keeps just left of cutesy sitcom center. But something nips at the new couple’s happiness. Kumail, who was born in Pakistan but raised in the States, hails from a traditional Muslim family, and his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) remain intent on arranging a marriage for their youngest son. (Weekly family dinners inevitably devolve into labored setups, as eligible Pakistani women “drop by” to meet Kumail, appealing to his interests by making forced X-Files references.)
One might reasonably assume that this is the big conflict of The Big Sick, but it comes to a head before the midway mark. (Those who want to go into the film blind should click away now, though the inescapable trailer makes it clear what happens next.) After discovering, thanks to a cigar box full of prospective-wife headshots, that Kumail sees no real future for them (“Mom will fucking ghost you,” his brother tells him when he floats the idea of telling his parents he’s dating a white woman), Emily breaks things off. She then comes down, shortly thereafter, with a mysterious ailment—and when Kumail agrees, at the behest of her friends, to pick her up from the emergency room, he’s the only one there to permit the doctors to induce a coma when her condition suddenly, dramatically worsens. Next thing he knows, he’s planted in the waiting room, uncomfortably wedged between Emily’s distraught parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), who want nothing to do with him.
This development deepens The Big Sick into something more distinctive and resonant: a comedy about the strange business of getting to know a significant other’s parents. The experience can be a bit like a second courtship, complete with its own best-behavior, first-date salesmanship. The Big Sick, which thrusts its characters into a particularly upsetting version of a bring-the-boyfriend-home weekend, plays the scenario for both exquisite cringe comedy and pathos, as Kumail and the middle-aged strangers he’s met under less-than-ideal circumstances experience this immense medical crisis together, slowly warming to each other in the process. The performances ground the material, steering it clear of Meet The Parents pratfalls: Hunter lends take-a-no-shit vigor to the role of a protective Southern mother, while a never-better Romano does unexpected wonders with his character’s good-natured, dad-joke cluelessness. You could build another movie around these characters and their own complicated romance. (Kazan shouldn’t be undersold, either: Capturing some of the wit and spirit of the writer on which she’s modeled, the actress makes her eventual absence from the narrative consistently felt, never letting us forget what her worried loved ones are in danger of losing.)
The Big Sick sometimes strays to the backstage, cutthroat world of stand-up, which is just one of several ways that producer Judd Apatow asserts his influence. (There’s even an onstage meltdown scene—a hallmark of the comedy mogul’s work, from Funny People to Crashing.) At around two hours, The Big Sick also has some of that famous Apatow sprawl, finding room for presumably improvisational detours—some involving Kumail’s career-minded friends (played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and Kurt Braunohler), others involving his family’s matchmaking schemes. But for once, the big canvas feels entirely justified; if this is another story under the Apatow umbrella of a funny man-child slowly growing out of the “child”—in this case by learning to be honest with his family—it’s at least one that uses the hefty running time for the purposes of specificity. Not since the one-two punch of Knocked Up and Superbad has the Apatow formula paid greater dividends.
Remarkably, all of this actually happened. Well, okay, not all of it. In real life, Kumail and Emily were still together when she fell ill. Splitting them up beforehand is maybe the shrewdest, most fruitful tweak they make to their unusual shared ordeal, separately weathered on different sides of the hospital glass. Certainly, it complicates the relationship between Kumail and his future in-laws, adding some extra drama to their bonding process. It also keeps the movie from sliding too smoothly into happily-ever-after resolution; as the script smartly stresses, Kumail’s life-changing emotional growth spurt happens while the girlfriend whose heart he broke is fast asleep. By the end, it’s clear why Nanjiani and Gordon thought that their particular love story merited a cinematic retelling: The Big Sick is an enormous crowdpleaser, funny and touching in about equal measure, built atop an intense experience, and wise about the ways we interact with both our own parents and those of the people we date. That it works as a movie, and not just a wedding toast, is probably thanks to those little creative liberties. When it comes to anecdotes, maybe emotional truth is what matters most.