“The Big Sick” strikes the right bal­ance

The Denver Post - - LIFE&CULTURE - By Ann Hor­na­day Ni­cole Rivelli, Lionsgate

★★★★ Ro­man­tic com­edy. Rated R. 119 min­utes.

As a genre, the ro­man­tic com­edy has been on its last legs lately, mired in raunch and rib­ald jokes on the one hand, or in­sipid wish-ful­fill­ment on the other. But an oth­er­wise en­dan­gered form gets a wel­come kick in the pants in “The Big Sick,” an ex­hil­a­rat­ing, ut­terly en­dear­ing movie that feels like both a re­turn to clas­sic prin­ci­ples and a brac­ing look for­ward.

Ku­mail Nan­jiani, best known for his work on the HBO se­ries “Sil­i­con Val­ley,” stars in “The Big Sick” 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 bright, blond grad­u­ate stu­dent named Emily (Zoe Kazan), the en­counter leads to a funny, in­stan­tkarma one-night-stand. But what Ku­mail and Emily in­tend to be just one of

Ethose things even­tu­ally 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 suit­able Mus­lim wife.

Nan­jiani wrote “The Big Sick” with his real-life wife, Emily V. Gor­don, whose se­ri­ous ill­ness, de­picted on-screen, in­tro­duces yet one more com­pli­ca­tion into the al­ready fraught cul­ture clash of the story. Loosely based on the cou­ple’s courtship and early ro­mance, the movie moves eas­ily be­tween a seem­ingly end­less se­ries of false starts and set­backs, which never feel forced or plot-driven, but sim­ply a re­flec­tion of the dizzy­ingly overde­ter­mined ex­pe­ri­ence oth­er­wise known as Life.

Ku­mail and Emily’s near in­stant recognition of each other as bright, slightly sar­cas­tic 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

Edis­sem­bling with his mother and fa­ther (Zeno­bia Shroff and Anu­pam Kher) and the awk­ward first im­pres­sion he makes with Emily’s par­ents, played with dazed con­cern and brit­tle rage by Ray Ro­mano and Holly Hunter.

With Ro­mano pro­vid­ing steady, rock­like bal­last to Nan­jiani’s own dead­pan wit, Hunter of­ten seems in dan­ger of steal­ing the movie in a fit of over­act­ing. With Emily out of com­mis­sion for much of the movie, the most in­trigu­ing re­la­tion­ship is among their three char­ac­ters, whose only thing in com­mon is the young woman they all adore. In­deed, Hunter’s pres­ence in “The Big Sick” un­der­scores how much pathos and rue­ful hu­mor it shares with the work of James L. Brooks, whose “Broad­cast News” Nan­jiani and Gor­don watched as in­spi­ra­tion for the se­ri­o­comic tone they were try­ing to strike.

Aided by pro­duc­ers Judd Apatow and Barry Men­del, as well as di­rec­tor Michael Showal­ter, they suc­ceed bril­liantly with “The Big Sick,” which pays homage to the bless-this-mess re­al­ity of life while of­fer­ing just the right fizz of ro­man­tic ide­al­ism. Like a weird, won­der­ful cross be­tween “Amour” and “While You Were Sleep­ing,” this al­ter­nately hi­lar­i­ous and wrench­ing por­trayal of com­mit­ment threads a whis­per-thin nee­dle be­tween can­dor and cathar­tic laughs, glid­ing from grim hos­pi­tal vig­ils one minute and into an­tic screw­ball fam­ily dy­nam­ics the next.

An­chored by Nan­jiani’s su­perbly cal­i­brated per­for­mance — not to men­tion his and Gor­don’s scrupu­lous mas­sag­ing of their own lived ex­pe­ri­ence — “The Big Sick” 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.

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