The Big Sick
Directed by: Mike Showalter
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter, Anupam Kher
Rated R for language, including some sexual references.
1 hr. 59 min.

It’s as Dickens wrote at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, when establishing that Marley was dead: “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come from the story I’m going to relate.” The Big Sick, as a title, works much the same way. You know someone’s going to fall deathly ill, and that must be understood, or the wonder of it all cannot be experienced.

Actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his co-writer/wife, Emily V. Gordon, have used their own lives as subject matter for this rom-com that breathes fresh life into the genre. There’s no triteness, no estrogen-fueled syrup; just a witty, heartfelt story at a time when bellicosity and flight from civility seem to prevail.

Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) plays Kumail, a Pakistani American and non-practicing Muslim, slugging it out, night after night, as a comic when he meets the fictional Emily, played by an appealing Zoe Kazan. If that last name sounds familiar, she’s the granddaughter of the late director Elia Kazan. Emily is blonde and quirky, and bears a physical resemblance to the actual Gordon. She interrupts Kumail’s comedy set with a boisterous hoot. They later meet in the club’s bar, and soon head back to his cramped Chicago apartment for a “zesty session.”

Thus begins a fun relationship that must mirror the real life of Nanjiani and Gordon. They have to be a well-matched couple: The screenplay is deft and subtle, the comedy so well-timed, it sneaks up on you. What lies ahead for them are their cultural differences, which Nanjiani tries to avoid. His parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, strong, sincere and droll) regularly invite an array of attractive Pakistani women to dinner in an attempt to arrange a marriage for their 30-something son — something he never mentions to Emily.

Largely because of that, he screws up with her, just before she falls ill. Thus, The Big Sick. It’s during this ordeal that he has to step up, which is not easy because Emily’s parents know all about him, especially her mother (Holly Hunter, as always, eating up the camera). As Emily’s father, the perfectly cast Ray Romano is as dry as Melba toast, with a stand-up’s nimble touch.

The result for Kumail is that neither family is happy with him. How he navigates these rough waters is both tender and amusing. Director Michael Showalter’s fluid style is at work here as it was in last year’s Hello, My Names is Doris. The Big Sick could be considered long but, remember, producer Judd Apatow is not exactly a minimalist. If he’d made Lawrence of Arabia people would have had to sleep in the theater to get to the end of the film. Though his movies are all humorous hits (Knocked Up, Trainwreck), there’s always fat that could be trimmed from them. In The Big Sick, however, you don’t notice the length because the laughs are sharp and the situations so accurate.

This is a keen, semi-autobiographical reflection on cross-cultural relationships. The message I’d guess at, and agree with, is that although the barriers between human beings can be huge, in a better world they’d be overcome.

It’s also gratifying to see that Asian actors such as Kumail Nanjiani (and others, such as Aziz Ansari) are rising as performers. As a writer, actor and comedian, Nanjiani is central to a very, very entertaining movie. The Big Sick is funny, it’s warm, and you’ll want to see it twice. It’s what a lot of America looks like in the 21st century. You’ll find it impossible not to laugh, and will likely note a lump in your throat before you fully realize what it is.