The Big Sick (Lionsgate, R)

It’s fresh and funny and emotionally satisfying, and that’s more than enough for a summer movie.

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is an Uber driver by day, a stand-up comedian by night. He lives in a grungy Chicago apartment with another aspiring comedian and pays regular visits to his family in the suburbs, who have little understanding of his show-biz aspirations and think he should just go to law school already. You may be thinking you’ve heard this story before, but you really haven’t, because Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick achieves an unexpected complexity by combining elements of multiple genres—rom-com, immigrant drama, backstager, medical drama, and bildungsroman among them—and rather amazingly makes it work most of the time.

One night, a young woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) interrupts Kumail’s act. He speaks to her about it later, and before you know it, they’re hopping into bed. Neither wants to be in a relationship right now, so of course that’s exactly what they end up doing. Emily reveals that she is a graduate student in psychology, and somewhat later in the game that she is divorced. Kumail, however, is harboring an even bigger secret—his parents want him to marry a Pakistani woman, and he hasn’t told them about Emily. When Emily learns this, she sees it as a betrayal, and they break up.

That would be that, except that Emily is struck down by a mysterious disease. With her parents living in North Carolina, and her school friends busy with exams, it falls on Kumail to go to the hospital and (most improbably) pretend to be her husband to give permission for her to be put into a medically induced coma. This is the first of several improbabilities regarding the medical aspects of the plot (another is that no one discusses insurance or costs), but they must be overlooked the same way you must stifle questions about how a grad student could afford so spacious and well-furnished an apartment as the one Emily lives in.

Emily’s medical crisis brings Kumail in contact with her parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). They have heard Emily’s version of the affair and are not at all pleased to see Kumail at the hospital, but he simply refuses to leave and, in the most transformative subplot in this film, eventually the three of them come to terms with each other. Meanwhile, Kumail continues to lie to his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) and brother (Adeel Akhtar), pretending to be open to an arranged marriage with one of the many Pakistani girls that just happen to be in the neighborhood each evening when the family is sitting down to dinner.

Kumail is caught in a dilemma common to many immigrants. He loves his family and appreciates the many sacrifices they made so he and his brother could have a better life in America. At the same time, he wants to claim the freedom America promises for himself, and that includes the right to choose his own marriage partner, without regard to her ethnicity. His parents don’t see it that way at all—to them, some traditions are too important to give up, and one of those is that their son will have an arranged marriage with a Pakistani woman. They speak of another relative who married a white woman and was essentially banished from the family, and that threat is always hanging over Kumail’s head. In fairness, The Big Sick also makes it clear that Kumail is really being a jerk by pretending to be going along with the process of an arranged marriage, and one of the potential brides is given the opportunity to tell him off in no uncertain terms. Whatever freedoms Kumail thinks he is lacking, it’s far worse for his female contemporaries, a fact to which he seems to have given no thought at all.  

The screenplay for The Big Sick was written by Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, based on events from their lives. Turning your own life into material for a show is the most stand-up thing in the world, but it’s seldom done as skillfully as in this film. By way of contrast, bad stand-up acts, and bad joke-telling in general, are regularly skewered in The Big Sick, providing some of the film’s most cringingly funny moments (it easily passes the Mark Kermode six-laugh test, many times over). Kumail makes himself the butt of the joke early in the film, performing a dreadful one-man show that exemplifies everything that is wrong with his approach to comedy.

The Big Sick is not a perfect film, but it’s a very good one. Like most Judd Apatow productions, it’s too long and contains multiple scenes that could easily have been cut (the fast-food confrontation and the red herring about moving Emily come immediately to mind). Still, it’s fresh and funny and emotionally satisfying, and that’s more than enough for a summer movie. | Sarah Boslaugh

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