The Big Sick review – Kumail Nanjiani's real-life romcom is a humane delight

The stand-up comic turned Silicon Valley star teams up with Judd Apatow to tell the charming story of how he met his wife

If you’re a comic keen to express, in great detail, the many difficulties of your everyday life on screen, then congrats – Hollywood wants to hear your story, even if a mass audience often doesn’t. The critical success of Louie has led to shows from Tig Notaro, Marc Maron, Pete Holmes, Cameron Esposito, Maria Bamford and Aziz Ansari, all riffing on versions of themselves with mixed, and sometimes under-seen, results. It’s become a strangely overpopulated sub-genre of late, and a feature-length film based on the early days of standup-turned-sitcom star Kumail Nanjiani arrives at a time when it feels as necessary as another superhero reboot.

But The Big Sick is not just the story of a comedian trying to earn a living. It’s a great many other things too, all working seamlessly together to create a charming, multifaceted film that never feels as overstuffed as it could in different hands. It’s primarily a romantic comedy, but also a family drama detailing the unusual courtship between Nanjiani, his girlfriend and her parents.

Kumail is an Uber driver struggling to get his career as a comic off the ground while simultaneously facing a continuous conveyor belt of potential brides from his eager mother. His Pakistani parents are keen to engineer an arranged marriage for him with a pre-selected Muslim woman but when Kumail falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan), a white American student, he’s faced with a difficult decision. Their relationship ultimately falls apart as a result, but soon after he hears word that Emily has been struck down with a mysterious illness and, with his panicked input, she is placed in a medically induced coma. Despite no longer being her boyfriend, he feels compelled to stay close, accompanied by her traumatized, and bemused, parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter).

There’s a refreshing lack of self-indulgence on display in The Big Sick, a surprise given how often it tends to permeate through not only other comic confessionals but autobiographical fodder in general. It helps that Nanjiani decided to co-write the script with – spoiler – his now wife, Emily V Gordon; we have an unusually well-balanced view of a burgeoning relationship boasting not just a male character of depth but a counterpart who feels like more than just a screenwriter’s idea of a woman. Their early scenes together boast a genuine spark, but it’s in studying the other familial relationships that the film really brings something sharp and distinctive to the table.

Exploring the dynamic between suitor and potential in-laws feels like a relatively untapped source of both comedic and dramatic potential, and director Michael Showalter (improving on his unbearably twee Sally Field drama Hello My Name Is Doris), working with producer Judd Apatow, smartly recruits the unlikely pair of Romano and Hunter to help bring this side of the story to life. They’re both superbly cast, deftly attuned to one another in a lived-in, messy way, and it’s a joy to see Hunter given the opportunity to flex her underutilized talents. She’s the film’s MVP, a warm, feisty, naturalistic performance that could see her return to the Oscar race next year.

Nanjiani and Kazan are also a likable leading couple, the latter managing to shake off the manic pixie dream girl trope she’s usually stuck with in tiresome indie dirge such as Ruby Sparks and What If. The film is also an important step for Apatow, and while it does conform to his obsession with conservative happy endings (this one is at least true) there’s a maturity here that feels far removed from the comedy he often attaches himself to, working far more successfully than his last film as director, the uneven Amy Schumer launchpad Trainwreck.

There’s also a casual softening of Muslim stereotypes that’s easy to take for granted, especially arriving so soon after the second season of Master of None, but given the current climate Nanjiani’s nuanced depiction of his family is vital, another one of the film’s many plusses. Both Nanjiani and Gordon are reluctant to paint themselves or their families in broad strokes, each character a dysfunctional maelstrom of good and bad, and it’s this genuine fact-based texture that helps to make the film feel far from a Hollywood construct.

The romantic comedy has become something of an ailed genre of late, but The Big Sick is a welcome jolt, briefly bringing it back to life with depth and wit before it inevitably returns to the coma it’s been stuck in.

  • The Big Sick is in selected US cinemas on 23 June and will release wide on 14 July with a UK release on 28 July

• This article was amended on 23 June 2017 to correct the spelling of the names Kumail Nanjiani and Tig Notaro.

Contributor

Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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