Truly, Madly, Deeply in Coma: "The Big Sick" a rare bird that deftly balances humor and pathos

The Big Sick (2017)
119 min., rated R.

Producer Judd Apatow seems to have a skill for finding fresh talent, getting their TV shows and movies made, and branding them household names, like Lena Dunham with HBO’s “Girls” and Amy Schumer with 2015’s “Trainwreck.” This time, it is stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who, with wife/co-producer/co-writer Emily V. Gordon, penned the script for “The Big Sick,” which tracks their courtship and how they never gave up on one another. As an autobiographical romantic comedy with a coma coming between the couple, it’s a great story that was probably told at parties and now gets to be shared with the world. Falling right in with Apatow’s wheelhouse but directed by Michael Showalter (2016’s “Hello, My Name Is Doris”), “The Big Sick” is the best-case scenario of a romantic comedy, handling tone with a delicate hand and balancing humor and pathos. It’s heartfelt, tonally deft and endlessly appealing.

The Pakistani-born Kumail, played by Kumail Nanjiani as a version of himself, is a struggling stand-up comic who moonlights as an Uber driver in Chicago. His family members are devout Muslims, expecting him to excuse himself and retreat to the basement to pray during each weekly dinner, but Kumail just wastes time and plays video games instead. His mother (Zenobia Shroff) always arranges a “coincidental” knock at the door by a single Pakistani woman for Kumail to marry, but again, Kumail has no interest. After one of his shows, Kumail singles out Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), a grad student who amiably heckles him during his set, and strikes up conversation at the bar. They go back to his apartment and soon, even though they both keep saying it isn’t a good idea, Kumail and Emily begin dating. He can’t work up the courage to tell his parents about Emily, but Emily has told her parents about Kumail and can’t wait for them to meet her. After the couple has a big fight and stop talking to each other, Emily is hospitalized. A lung infection soon forces the doctors to put Emily into a medically induced coma that Kumail ends up signing off on. It then falls on Kumail to call Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who live in North Carolina. Upon the parents’ arrival, they don’t really see any need for Kumail to stick around, but eventually, the three of them find a mutual respect while waiting around for their girl to come out of the coma.

“The Big Sick” briefly reminds one of 1995’s cute Sandra Bullock vehicle “While You Were Sleeping,” but this isn’t some cookie-cutter romantic comedy. Even if one has no idea the screenplay was based on the couple’s so-crazy-it-must-be-true story, the film is rooted in a truthful, recognizable reality. And, if one already knows the outcome going in—yes, Emily eventually wakes up—there is still a lot to like in the destination. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon resist Hollywoodizing their story with obvious contrivances and manipulative emotions, and director Michael Showalter makes the varied shifts in tone look effortless. To even the most experienced filmmaker, a film juggling a true story about a relationship, an illness, cultural differences, the pressures of family and religion, and one’s career successes and failures would seem like a daunting task. Somehow, the film remains low-key rather than being driven by joke after joke. Most of the humor stems from many of Nanjiani’s small, smartly captured observations and insights, like Emily’s father asking Kumail about his “stance” on 9/11, but also the backstage scenes at the comedy club that recall Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice” and the dinner-table interplay with Kumail’s family, including brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar), sister-in-law Fatima (Shenaz Treasurywala), and father Azmat (Anupam Kher). Best of all, it’s obvious that Nanjiani and Gordon wanted to tell their story as honestly as possible because they love these characters and generously treat them with an understanding that we, as people, are all flawed.

Popping up in bit roles since the early start of his film career (he was last seen this year in “Fist Fight” and has been a co-lead for four seasons of HBO's "Silicon Valley"), Kumail Nanjiani has a very engaging presence, comedically deadpan yet authentic and understated, and showcases untapped dramatic chops. Front and center, he carries the film with total ease in his first starring lead role and navigates an actual arc. Before Emily spends a large chunk of the film unconscious with a tube in her throat, the naturally lovely Zoe Kazan fleshes her out as a warm, likable, quick-witted and capable woman to make her feel like a real person whose presence is still felt. Together, Nanjiani and Kazan make for an adorable couple the viewer pulls for and wants to see work. 

Breathing room is given to the whole ensemble, too. As Emily’s parents, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter play off each other wonderfully and each get their own time with Nanjiani. Hunter, in particular, creates a lived-in person with quirks, warmth and a mama-bear prickliness. When Kumail invites Emily’s parents to the comedy club to see his set and get their minds off of their daughter being in a coma for one night, Beth tears into a rude, ignorant frat boy in the audience who heckles Kumail with a racist remark; Hunter makes the moment enormously satisfying and keeps it in tune with her character. SNL’s Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, and Kurt Braunohler also turn up from time to time as Kumail’s stand-up buddies who alternately bust each other’s chops, pat each other on the back, and compete for slots at the Montreal Comedy Festival.

As in any Judd Apatow production, “The Big Sick” still doesn’t graduate from the standard in the technical sense. One refreshing find: compared to the loose, improv-heavy style adopted by Apatow and employed in almost anything he directs himself, this is a film that feels more concisely written and structured on the page. The final cut, however, could have afforded to lose about 10 minutes’ of fat somewhere, turning a very good film into a great one. That said, “The Big Sick” is that rare bird that keeps a lot of balls in the air and drops none of them. Ending on an elliptically sweet note that feels just about perfect, this is a downright darling summer tonic.

Grade: B +