‘The Big Sick’ turns unorthodox courtship into smart, silly rom-com

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Kumail Nanjiani plays a comedian falling for his heckler (Zoe Kazan) in “The Big Sick.” | AMAZON STUDIOS/LIONSGATE

All the best romantic comedies make you tear up.

All the best romantic comedies make you nod in recognition at certain situations — even if you have very little in common with the outward trappings of the characters.

All the best romantic comedies make you believe if you met this couple, you’d be rooting for this couple.

From “Annie Hall” to “When Harry Met Sally …” to “Four Weddings and a Funeral” to “500 Days of Summer,” the most treasured modern rom-coms stay with us because through all the laugh-out-loud moments and the absurd predicaments and the familiar meet-cutes and the break-ups and the reconciliations, there’s a ring of authenticity to the writing and the directing, and of course the performances.

“The Big Sick” hits all of those notes. It is funny and smart and wise and silly, it is romantic and sweet and just cynical enough, and it is without a doubt one of the best romantic comedies I have seen in a long time.

You don’t need to know the background of this film to love this film, but the background is pretty special.

Screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon based “The Big Sick” on their real-life courtship. Some 10 years ago, when Kumail was an aspiring standup in Chicago, he met and fell for Emily, a therapist. Eight months into their relationship, Emily took sick and was put into a medically induced coma.

“The Big Sick” is a fictionalized version of events, but that’s essentially the framework for the film as well.

Nanjiani plays a movie version of himself, with the wonderful Zoe Kazan as Emily.

Kumail was born and raised in Pakistan, but moved with his family to Chicago when he was a boy. His parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, both terrific) invite a steady parade of young Pakistani-American women to the house, pressuring Kumail to choose one.

As Kumail says in his comedy, “In Pakistan, arranged marriage is just called, ‘marriage.’ ”

Kumail is onstage one night at a Chicago comedy club when a young woman engages in some light heckling from the audience. That young woman is Emily — and from the moment Kumail sets eyes on her, the whole arranged-marriage thing looks to be in jeopardy.

Actually what Emily says is, “Woo-hoo!” but as Kumail explains to Emily at the bar after the show, not all heckling is bad heckling. Any kind of audience-participation is considered heckling and can throw a comic off his game, he explains.

So if I said you were great in bed — that would be heckling? asks Emily.

It would be accurate — but yes, responds Kumail.

Thus begins a cute and sassy and very of-the-moment modern romance, with Emily protesting she can’t get involved in a serious relationship because she’s so busy, and Kumail trying to get Emily to dig his favorite horror movies, and Kumail making ends meet as an Uber driver, and the obligatory mini-jokes played out over smart phones.

For the first half of the story, “The Big Sick” is essentially one big smile of a movie. We get just enough comedy club stuff (backstage and onstage), with Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham and Kurt Braunohler earning legit laughs as Kumail’s fellow comics. It’s fun to watch the romance develop. The dinner scenes with Kumail’s family, the edgier fare about cultural differences — all good stuff. All of it works.

But then the relationship takes a sour turn, and shortly after that Emily is in that medically induced coma, and while “The Big Sick” never stops bringing the laughs, much of the second half of the film is as serious as …

Well. A medically induced coma.

Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play Emily’s parents. One of them is feisty and brash and tough and brimming with unstoppable love for Emily, and the other is outwardly more friendly and a bit of a hangdog and a borderline pushover but has just as much love for Em — and you can probably figure out which actor is best suited to those respective personality traits.

Hunter is a force. Romano hits just the right low-key notes.

Kumail is in a weird place because he has never met Emily’s parents before, and he ended things with Emily just before she got sick — but he wants to be there for Emily, so he’s going to have to bond with her mom and dad even as Emily is in a coma and by the way, her parents know what a jerk Kumail was to Emily.

Yes, that setup is actually mined for some of the biggest laughs in the movie. And even though Emily is unconscious for much of the second half of the film, it’s a tribute to Zoe Kazan’s sparkling work in the early scenes — and to a screenplay that keeps her as a focal point of the film throughout — that it never feels as if she disappears from the movie.

Director Michael Showalter (“Hello, My Name is Doris”) does an admirable job of keeping things moving at a brisk pace and juggling multiple story threads, fully justifying the running time of just over two hours. Nanjiani and Kazan have an easy and heartwarming chemistry together, and the supporting performances are universally outstanding.

All the best romantic comedies get even better upon repeat viewings. I’m fully confident “The Big Sick” will pass that test the next time I see it, which will be very soon.


Amazon Studios and Lionsgate present a film directed by Michael Showalter and written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. Rated R (for language including some sexual references). Running time: 119 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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