"The Big Sick" Is A Blood-Warm Romantic Comedy

Kumail Nanjiani, stand-up comedian and star of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” is a warm, gracious human being and a wellspring of charm. His 2013 special “Beta Male” ranks among the funniest hours of comedy of the decade and the tour that followed – comprised of all-new material – was even more impressive. If only his big move to the big screen, autobiographical rom-com “The Big Sick,” captured as much.

Based on the Pakistani-American’s real-life love story with writer Emily Gordon – the two co-wrote the pic’s screenplay – “The Big Sick” aims to meld some big issues: Young love, medical trauma, and family schisms stemming from cultural roadblocks. This is all fertile ground for what might have been a refreshingly prickly romantic comedy with a double lining of laughs and life lessons.

But what the film might have been and what it is are miles apart. Instead of playing up its unusually pointed romance, Nanjiani, Gordon, and director Michael Showalter (of “The State” and “Wet Hot American Summer” fame) turn all too often to cinematic scrapbooking. They’ve put an unsuitably warm glow to a tumultuous narrative, not abusing rom-com clichés but cozying up to them throughout. Along with frequent collaborator David Wain, Showalter co-wrote 2014’s “They Came Together,” a very funny rom-com spoof that torpedoed every genre convention to hell and back. Apparently Showalter has forgotten all about it.

Kumail stars as himself, a nonreligious Pakistani-American faking adherence to his family’s expectations. He and a white woman named Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) fall in love, each concealing a not insignificant part of themselves. Emily was previously married. Kumail’s parents expect him to wed a Muslim Pakistani woman, a parade of which his mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) steadily marches through her living room.

After a protracted romantic false start for the leads, a mysterious illness strikes Emily and she’s put into a medically induced coma. Sparkling performances from Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents Beth and Terry push the movie towards anxious anti-rom-com. Hurrah! The uneasy push-pull between recovering asshole Kumail and his ex’s parents is the highlight of the film, led by two veteran actors doing what they do best – giving serious depth to two seemingly ordinary characters.

But the movie’s obnoxiously long running time, a hallmark of producer Judd Apatow, means Hunter and Romano don’t arrive for an hour – an hour spent on rote early-relationship talk; an hour spent wasting brilliant stand-up Bo Burnham as one of Kumail’s comedian friends (Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler also play friends); an hour spent building up a chemistry between Nanjiani and Kazan that just isn’t there. (Gordon wasn’t in play to co-star but she should have been; Kazan struggles with her uniquely spirited brand of introspection.)

The running time also stretches out the laughs and exacerbates the feeling of preciousness on the part of Nanjiani and Gordon. The couple isn’t wrong to love their love story. At the same time, this version of it sure could have used some trimming. Showalter’s direction is equally soppy, failing to capture the energy and edge of Nanjiani’s stand-up or the confusion that comes with family turmoil. A rom-com haze envelops the first hour, belying the intrigue inherent in the lives of its subjects.

The end result is generally pleasant but as edgy as a bowling ball, so concerned with being affable that it forgets to be memorable. There’s a good 90-minute film therein. At 125 minutes, it’s a grind that never finds an equilibrium between feel-good comedy and incisive slice of life. And it’s never quite funny enough.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: June 23, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Amazon Studios, Lionsgate
Director: Michael Showalter
Screenwriters: Kumail Nanjiani, Emily Gordon
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Bo Burnham, Kurt Braunohler, Aidy Bryant
MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)