Kumail Nanjiani makes romcom magic in Michael Showalter's The Big Sick 

Did you know that there's a lot of hype surrounding the summer's biggest romantic comedy, The Big Sick? The film premiered this January at my first ever Sundance Film Festival, where I got the bulk of my film news by eavesdropping on the conversations of other journalists. Boy oh boy, The Big Sick was really big news. Beloved by everyone, it became the subject of a bidding war between major studios, eventually going to Amazon for $12 million dollars, which is (I overheard) a lot of money.

The Big Sick was the only movie at Sundance with a line so long that I got turned away at the door. Its mythology grew. When they announced The Big Sick would be the opening-night film at the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival, against all instincts of reason and self-preservation, I bought the $75 opening-night gala ticket for the chance to see the film two months early. Was it worth it? I don't know, probably! Who can put a dollar value on comedy and love?

The film stars Kumail Nanjiani, the Pakistani-born actor and comedian with an increasingly ubiquitous name (his work includes HBO's Silicon Valley and guest roles in everything). Nanjiani co-wrote the script with his wife Emily V. Gordon, and it is a loose adaptation of their real-life courtship. Zoe Kazan plays Emily, with Holly Hunter and Ray Romano rounding out the cast as Emily's seemingly mismatched but ultimately made-for-each-other parents.

click to enlarge Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan star in The Big Sick.
  • Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan star in The Big Sick.

The film's directed by Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer) and produced by Judd Apatow in what is truly an unabashed and celebratory engagement with the genre. Since The 40-Year-Old Virgin in 2004, for better or worse, Apatow pictures have redefined the romcom for a larger audience. It's not enough anymore to watch a gorgeous klutz fall in love with a pre-True Detective Matthew McConaughey. As it turns out, we prefer flawed, hilarious characters overcoming real-life hurdles in pursuit of an imperfect love that still fulfills the romantic comedy contract: Beyond the scope of the picture, the movie promises us, these characters' love will endure.

In The Big Sick, Nanjiani plays a fledgling stand-up comedian/Uber driver in Chicago with recently immigrated parents who just want to see him marry a nice Muslim girl. Alas, he meets the hopelessly Anglo-Saxon grad student Emily after a show one night, and a tender relationship blooms. The first hurdle is cultural differences, which may seem abstract to most of us but when Nanjiani says plaintively, "I could lose my family," it's heartbreaking, and I believe him. They break up.

The second hurdle is "the big sick," i.e., the coma that Emily slips into, at which point Emily's parents enter the picture. They know about the breakup and wonder why the ex continues to hover around their comatose daughter. Hunter and Romano, who represent the romcom's unseen fourth act, the one that lasts for the rest of the characters' lives, are warm and brilliant.

The Big Sick works because its humor feels effortless and true, and the laughs spring out of genuine tragedy. It helps to have a comedy club as backdrop. (Look out for SNL's Aidy Bryant among Kumail's friends in the trenches.) As I've said, the screenwriters are married in real life, so there's no real doubt that these characters won't end up together, but still. Better to see the movie and make sure.

The Big Sick screens at the Missoula AMC 12.

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