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'The Big Sick' puts a sweet and serious cultural twist on romantic comedy

Posted July 9

“THE BIG SICK” — 3 stars — Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Ramano, Anupam Kher; R (language, including some sexual references); in general release

It helps to know that “The Big Sick” is inspired by a true story. Otherwise, you might question the decision to produce a romantic comedy that puts the lead actress in a coma for half the movie.

“The Big Sick” is the story of how real-life standup comedian Kumail Nanjiani got together with his wife, Emily, overcoming substantial cultural differences — and a life-threatening illness — along the way.

We meet Kumail (who plays himself) in Chicago as a struggling comedian, working as an Uber driver on the side. He’s getting regular five-minute sets from a local comedy club owner named Andy (David Alan Grier) but nothing substantial enough to impress Bob Dalavan (Jeremy Shamos), the talent scout who has been haunting the club’s back row.

His traditional Pakistani family lives in the suburbs, and every time he drops by for dinner, he has to meet another prospect his mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) has recruited for an arranged marriage, and crack jokes about his aspirations for a law career he really doesn’t want.

Kumail is much more interested in Emily (played in the film by Zoe Kazan), the North Carolina transplant he meets after one of his brief standup sets. Despite sending him mixed signals — such as sleeping with him on their first date — Emily is reluctant to get into a committed relationship, and their progress is derailed when she discovers Kumail is still humoring his mother’s efforts to arrange his marriage.

It’s around this time that “The Big Sick” takes the kind of turn that could only work in a true story: Emily contracts a mysterious infection and is placed into an induced coma (approved by a bewildered Kumail, no less). Kumail continues to visit her in the hospital and, in the process, strikes up a relationship with Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano).

It’s a far cry from the kind of thing audiences have grown to expect from the likes of Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock, and in a lot of ways, “romantic comedy” feels like a mismatch of a descriptor. But “The Big Sick” has a very genuine feeling almost because its parts don’t quite fit together so seamlessly. It feels more like the messy jumble of comedy, drama and tragedy that echoes real life because, presumably, that’s what this is.

For all its strong points, Nanjiani is the standout, shining as an exceedingly likeable personality, emoting a genuine kindness underneath his obligatory millennial sarcasm. He’s exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to find living with Chris (Kurt Braunohler), another aspiring comedian who acts as the film’s sympathetic doormat whenever he shows his face or opens his mouth.

Hunter and Romano also add strength to the cast, and their relationship is featured as much as Kumail and Emily’s. Watching Hunter, you instantly see where Emily’s personality comes from and, as a result, Terry almost feels like a sneak preview of Kumail’s possible future.

If there’s a weak link, it’s that Kumail and Emily don’t completely feel “meant to be,” but “The Big Sick” has enough going for it to offset any minor issues. “The Big Sick” is a sweet film, even with some rough edges, and it will be fun to see more from Nanjiani in the future.

“The Big Sick” is rated R for language, including some sexual references; running time: 120 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. You can also find him on <a href='https://www.youtube.com/moviereviewsbyjosh' target='_blank'>YouTube</a>.

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