You can’t spell romance without c-o-m-a; oddly enough, this state of deep unconsciousness has previously been mined for screen love stories as disparate as the quirky farce “While You Were Sleeping” and Pedro Almodóvar’s haunting masterpiece “Talk to Her.” In “The Big Sick,” screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon retell their own real-life love story, as his adoration for her grew even as she was medically unresponsive.
It’s a tale that involves comedy-club dreams, immigrant parents clashing with their American-raised children, and a relationship where one partner experiences personal growth while the other is intubated. Those are a lot of plates for any movie to keep spinning, and while “The Big Sick” isn’t always a complete success — it’s another film bearing the name of Judd Apatow (he produced with Barry Mendel) that could stand to lose 15 or 20 minutes — it’s the kind of sweetly funny love story that’s so bizarre that it has to be real.
Kumail (Nanjiani, playing himself) is a struggling young Chicago stand-up comic, Uber-driving by day and gigging at night. His parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) brought the family over from Pakistan when Kumail was a young boy, and they assume that Kumail will enter into an arranged marriage, following in their footsteps and in those of his older brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar, “Four Lions”). As for the stand-up comedy thing, well, they hope he’ll soon be abandoning that to go to law school.
But despite what he says at family dinners (where a series of prospective brides just happen to drop by because they were in the neighborhood), Kumail has no plans to go to law school, and he’d also like to pick his own wife, particularly since he’s fallen for Emily (Zoe Kazan), a bright grad student he met after one of his shows. Both claim to be far too busy to get into a relationship, but they keep spending time together anyway.
When it’s clear to Emily that Kumail hasn’t told his parents about her, and that he’s keeping her at a distance because he’s too afraid to buck tradition, she walks out. A few weeks later, however, he gets a call from a mutual friend: Emily is in the hospital, and her fellow students have finals coming up, and could Kumail go sit with her? She’s none too glad to see him, but when she becomes unconscious, Kumail pretends to be her husband to sign forms that will allow doctors to place her in an induced coma.
He calls Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) — using the unconscious Emily’s thumb to unlock her iPhone — and they are at first chilly, since they know the circumstances behind the recent break-up. But Kumail keeps coming back to the hospital, and providing emotional assistance to Beth and Terry, and his relationship with them and his commitment to Emily makes him realize that maybe they had a good thing going. Not that any of this will make a difference to Emily once she finally awakens.
Nanjiani is an engaging comic presence, whether he’s performing stand-up or playing opposite two very different sets of parents. He’s got an amiable hangdog expression and a wonderfully dry deadpan; as a dramatic actor, however, he doesn’t always take “The Big Sick” where it needs to go in its twists and turns between hilarity and heartbreak. (The failing may be more on the shoulders of director Michael Showalter, who previously fell short juggling wackiness and pathos in “Hello, My Name is Doris.”)
Still, it’s an impressive lead debut for Nanjiani, who’s best known as part of the ensemble of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” And whatever shortcomings he has in the more tear-jerking moments, they’re more than made up for by Hunter and Romano, who are both searingly effective here; their characters are distraught over their daughter’s illness, but they’re also unsure what to make of Kumail, while also sitting on some long-simmering couple’s issues of their own, and their moments of awkwardness and misdirected anger are among the film’s highlights.
There are plenty of small, well-observed moments to go around, from Kumail’s family scenes (thankfully, the brides-to-be aren’t treated cruelly) to his fellow rising comics (Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham steal one little scene after another). It’s too bad that, true story or no, this is yet another film where a woman’s suffering is examined in terms of how it makes a man grow emotionally. It also would have helped to have cinematographer Brian Burgoyne (“Other People”) either play up the drabness of hospital corridors and comedy clubs or shoot them in a way that made them more vibrant settings; as it is, “The Big Sick” is never particularly pleasing or interesting to the eye.
The post-Sundance buzz on this film has been fairly deafening over the last few months; at sea level, it’s a deeply felt and often very funny indie comedy. And amidst the summer bombast, that’s plenty.