The Big Sick

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Sil­i­con Val­ley. The Big Sick

Mythol­ogy to the con­trary, Amer­ica has never been quite the melt­ing pot we used to pride our­selves on. The en­trenched pop­u­la­tion can be hos­tile to new­com­ers. First-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grants of­ten cir­cle the wagons, fiercely pro­tec­tive of their tra­di­tions. One of the taboos most earnestly guarded against is mixed mar­riage. This is the sub­ject tack­led by screen­writ­ers Emily V. Gor­don, a writer and pro­ducer, and her hus­band, Ku­mail Nan­jiani, a stand-up comic and star of HBO’s

In the movie, co-pro­duced by Judd Apa­tow and di­rected by Michael Showal­ter (Hello, My Name Is Doris), Nan­jiani plays a ver­sion of him­self, a young Pak­istani im­mi­grant who does stand-up com­edy and drives for Uber. Gor­don’s char­ac­ter is taken over by Zoe Kazan. They meet at the Chicago club where he’s on­stage and she’s in the au­di­ence, and a feisty and fit­ful re­la­tion­ship en­sues.

The fit­ful­ness comes from Ku­mail’s in­abil­ity to com­mit. His par­ents ex­pect him to marry a Pak­istani girl. At the fam­ily din­ner ta­ble, the door­bell will ring, and his mother (Zeno­bia Shroff) will say, “Who could that be?” and then re­turn with an at­trac­tive Pak­istani Mus­lim girl who “just hap­pened to drop by.” (These young women are mostly ter­rific.) Ku­mail is ex­pected to choose one of them as his bride. When Emily re­al­izes he has never told his par­ents about her, she an­grily breaks off the re­la­tion­ship. In his cul­ture, Ku­mail ex­plains help­lessly, “Ar­ranged mar­riage is mar­riage. Any­thing else is un­think­able.”

Un­think­able per­haps for his par­ents (his fa­ther is played by Bol­ly­wood great Anupam Kher), but not for Ku­mail, and when shortly after their breakup Emily is sud­denly hos­pi­tal­ized with a mys­te­ri­ous in­fec­tion and put in a coma, Ku­mail stays at her side day and night. The movie suf­fers al­most as much as Ku­mail does from the loss of the de­light­ful Kazan for that long stretch, but the slack is taken up by the ar­rival of her par­ents, won­der­fully played by Ray Ro­mano and Holly Hunter.

Gor­don and Nan­jiani’s script is smart, funny, and has the ring of truth, in part be­cause the cou­ple has lived a lot of it. The cast, which in­cludes a smat­ter­ing of comics, is uni­formly good, an­chored by the soul­ful Nan­jiani and the ir­re­press­ible Kazan.

You can have fun un­pack­ing that ti­tle — does it re­fer just to Emily’s ill­ness, or might it ex­pand to love it­self, or could it in­clude a sly re­flec­tion on con­tem­po­rary racial and eth­nic at­ti­tudes? In any case, is a ro­man­tic com­edy with a rich­ness of cul­tural in­sights, a beat­ing heart, and gen­uine laughs. — Jonathan Richards

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