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'The Big Sick' puts a sweet and serious cultural twist on romantic comedy
Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail and Zoe Kazan as Emily in The Big Sick. - photo by Josh Terry
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. Hes 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 clubs 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 doesnt 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 mothers efforts to arrange his marriage.

Its 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 Emilys parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano).

Its 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 dont quite fit together so seamlessly. It feels more like the messy jumble of comedy, drama and tragedy that echoes real life because, presumably, thats 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. Hes exactly the kind of guy youd expect to find living with Chris (Kurt Braunohler), another aspiring comedian who acts as the films 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 Emilys. Watching Hunter, you instantly see where Emilys personality comes from and, as a result, Terry almost feels like a sneak preview of Kumails possible future.

If theres a weak link, its that Kumail and Emily dont 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.
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