The romantic comedy has been on its last legs lately, mired in raunch and ribald jokes and insipid wish-fulfillment. But the genre gets a welcome kick in the pants in “The Big Sick,” an exhilarating, endearing movie that feels like a return to classic principles and a bracing look forward.
Kumail Nanjiani stars as Kumail, a Pakistani-American stand-up comedian who is an Uber driver on the side while he works out his routine in a Chicago club. When he’s heckled one night by a graduate student named Emily (Zoe Kazan), the encounter leads to a funny one-night stand. But the relationship morphs into something more serious, a development that threatens Kumail’s relationship with his traditionalist parents, who are trying to fix him up with a Muslim wife.
Nanjiani wrote “The Big Sick” with his real-life wife, Emily V. Gordon, whose serious illness, depicted onscreen, introduces yet one more complication into the story. The movie moves easily between a series of false starts and setbacks, which never feel forced or plot-driven, but simply a reflection of life.
Kumail and Emily’s recognition of each other as bright observers of life feels just as organic and true as Kumail’s competitive banter with his fellow stand-up strivers (Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler), which feels just as on-point as his dissembling with his mother and father (Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher) and the awkward first impression he makes with Emily’s parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter).
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With Romano providing steady ballast to Nanjiani’s deadpan wit, Hunter often seems at risk of stealing the movie in a fit of overacting. With Emily out of commission for much of the film, the most intriguing relationship is among their three characters, whose only thing in common is the woman they all adore.
“The Big Sick” pays homage to the bless-this-mess reality of life while offering just the right fizz of romantic idealism. This alternately hilarious and wrenching portrayal of commitment threads a needle between candor and cathartic laughs, gliding from grim hospital vigils one minute and into antic screwball family dynamics the next.
“The Big Sick,” directed by Michael Showalter, winds up being one of the most satisfying films of the summer, and quite possibly the year. It’s a movie that not only puts human imperfections and incongruities on display, but also revels in them. This is what love looks like, it seems to say, emblazoning those words on a 30-foot flag and letting it fly.
‘The Big Sick’
Rated R for language, including some sexual references. 1:59. Fayette Mall, Hamburg, Kentucky, Nicholasville, Richmond.