Starring Kumail Nanjiani. Rated 14A
With his welcome appearance at the top of the bill, Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani is just one of the good reasons to catch this summer charmer. Written by the Pakistani-American comic with his real-life partner, Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick semi-fictionalizes their own love story, with its assumed emphasis on cross-cultural friction and family conflict giving way to the mystery illness of the title. This leaves the film’s version of Emily (Zoe Kazan, Our Brand Is Crisis) in an induced coma for quite some time; a shame, in one sense, because Kazan is so watchable up to that point, lending her own offbeat charisma to a meet-cute that begins with her therapist in training heckling Nanjiani in a Chicago comedy club. In spite of a commitment to noncommitment observed at first by both parties, the chemistry is just too good, and it hurts to see her go.
Emily’s lights blink out after she discovers Kumail has been reluctantly entertaining candidates for an arranged marriage insisted upon by his mom (Zenobia Shroff, Little Zizou). If Kumail’s worst problem is avoidance, then his appeal lies in a related mix of boyish innocence and wit, where even his sharpest lines (and his worst crimes) land with a soft touch, no doubt a skill honed inside a family—rounded out by father Azmat (an endearing Anupam Kher, Bend It Like Beckham) and overcompetitive brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar, Four Lions)—who are all hilariously inept at hearing one another.
Kumail doesn’t know if Emily will either wake up or take him back, but he’s bent on ingratiating himself with her parents, played to the hilt by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter (who’s getting more Texan by the decade). It’s this sweetly evolving relationship that keeps the second half of The Big Sick in knee-slap country, all of it unfussily handled by Hello, My Name Is Doris director Michael Showalter.
At times the touch is a tad too light. Asked by Emily’s well-meaning, if faintly xenophobic, dad about his “stance on 9/11”, Kumail deadpans: “Oh, it was a terrible tragedy, we lost 19 of our best guys.” It’s a killer line that doesn’t need the humbling expiation that follows, and it reminds us that a Muslim comedian in America still has to watch his step, even in a movie this good. I think he should have knocked their heads together. Compassionately, of course.