Sundance Review: 'The Big Sick' Starring Kumail Nanjiani And Zoe Kazan

Take all of the competing elements in Michael Showalter's The Big Sick and it sounds like a movie trying to hit every festival niche at once. It's all at once a movie about overcoming disease, a story about cultural assimilation, a movie about stand-up comedians, a coming of age tale, and a rom-com. On the surface it shouldn't work at all,  but given the personal touches included by writer and star Kumail Nanjiani and co-writer Emily V. Gordon, every single moment feels authentic, which makes those moments all the funnier.

Nanjiani is playing a version of himself, a Chicago comedian who doubles as an Uber driver. Gordon, who is Nanjani's real-life wife, is portrayed by Zoe Kazan, and yes this is the story of their rather unconventional courtship. Born to a very traditional Pakistani family, Kumail faces their disapproval on a number of fronts. They don't support his standup career really, but his mother really doesn't like his refusal to marry a nice Muslim woman. All he wants to do is live his life, but at the same time he wants the love and approval of his parents.

So Kumail is naturally conflicted when he meets Emily after a gig in which she lightly heckles him. After schooling her on the intricacies of the heckle, "Heckling doesn't have to be negative", they begin a reluctant relationship in which neither wants to commit. He institutes a silly two-day rule, she keeps trying to break things off after each date, but more and more they begin to lean on one another. But when he starts trying to school her on cheap B-movie horror movies...yeah, that's what did it.

Fans of Kumail and Emily's various projects together will probably already know their story, but if not you'll recognize how deeply personal this material is to both. Fear of losing his family causes Kumail to be an idiot, and things with Emily break off in spectacularly bad fashion. It all happens just as his stand-up career is beginning to look up, with a prime slot at a Montreal festival looming if he can keep it together. While his friends (including SNL's Aidy Bryant) try to pull him out of his funk, things only get worse when he learns Emily is in the ICU with a mysterious illness. With no family in town, Kumail is pressed into allowing the doctors to place her in a medically-induced coma so they can figure out the problem. That's some heavy shit, man.

Believe it or not, things actually get much heavier, but there are always moments of levity to lighten the mood. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter play Emily's parents, who fly into town and are at first perplexed why Kumail is still hanging around after the break-up. It could be argued that the screenplay doesn't allow much time for the darker emotional moments to just exist on their own without some kind of joke to follow, and that is a fair point. But I also think it's tough for Romano, whose character is kind of a wuss compared to the firebrand Hunter, to not be funny even when he isn't trying to be.

And so the film takes a turn into a very different kind of film. With Emily in a coma the focus becomes on parents, and how Kumail works to earn the love of two different sets of them. His own, of course, but also Emily's. We learn about Emily by watching her parents, who both have their issues, and at the same time Kumail learns to love Emily deeper by getting to know the people who love her most.

With Judd Apatow on board as a producer the film comes with some serious mainstream muscle, but it also has some of his worst filmmaking traits. Like Apatow's Funny People, the film pushes a bit too hard on Kumail and his stand-up pals. There's a lot of material there that didn't need to be included, especially with his unfunny and intrusive roommate. Also, some scenes just feel like extended bits and don't add much to what we know about Kumail. It wouldn't be so bad but the movie is overlong and its these scenes that slow things down drastically. There's so much that works that you can't help but notice what doesn't. Jokes about our dependency on technology, usually a red flag for me because everybody does them to try and seem hip, are some of the film's best. And  this may be the one movie that can tell jokes about 9/11 that don't feel crass. There are a handful that Kumail tells and one got such a reaction from the audience that we missed the next four minutes because of all the laughter.

The Big Sick doesn't offer up any easy solutions for Kumail. This is a guy who is dealing with thousands of years of tradition heaped onto his shoulders. Breaking away from that is going to cause some people a lot of pain. At the same time, things aren't so easy to figure out when Emily wakes up. He may have become a changed man in the time she was sick, but it's great that her concerns when awake are made paramount. This isn't just Kumail's story, it's the story of Kumail and Emily, and she has her own thoughts on his supposed transformation. Of course, we know there's going to be a happy ending, but at least by the end of The Big Sick we feel Kumail and Emily deserve it.

Rating: 4 out of 5