One of the early breakout titles of this year’s Sundance Film Festival – it’s already reportedly sold to Amazon for $12 million — has been director Michael Showalter and star Kumail Nanjiani’s unclassifiable comedy The Big Sick. It’s hard to do justice to the weird tonal balancing act of this film: Based on events in the life of Nanjiani (who co-wrote the screenplay with wife Emily V. Gordon), it’s about the romance that develops between struggling comic and Uber driver Nanjiani (playing himself) and psychiatry student Emily (Zoe Kazan). But then it heads off into surprisingly grim territory, without ever betraying its wild sense of humor.
At first, Kumail and Emily’s challenge is a mutual antipathy toward long-term relationships. She’s busy and divorced; he’s from an immigrant family that keeps trying to set him up with young eligible Pakistani women. After they become an item, Kumail continues not to tell his parents about the new love in his life, which in turn leads to a nasty breakup with Emily. Then, suddenly, she’s in the Emergency Room with a bad case of the flu, and Kumail is the only one around to be by her side. But before he knows it, she starts to get worse, and a doctor asks him to sign a form allowing her to be put into a medically induced coma. Soon, Emily’s parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, both fantastic) to come to town. Trouble is, unlike Kumail, Emily shares everything with her parents, and her mom and dad have heard all about what a dick this young man was to their daughter. The excruciating period of waiting that ensues forces Kumail and the parents together, even as Emily lies perilously close to death, and needs more and more medical interventions.
The pitch sounds like a tacky weepie you’d have been afraid to watch on TV in the 1990s. But the film is hilarious — even after it becomes a story about a person in a coma. Showalter and Nanjiani find bracing, unpredictable humor in the spectacle of an ex-boyfriend and two harried parents stuck together in the most extreme, awkward circumstances. At one point, Kumail invites the skeptical parents to watch his stand-up act; when a racist bro heckles him from the audience, Emily’s mom suddenly leaps to Kumail’s defense – the defense of the man who broke her daughter’s heart – and all hell breaks loose. This bizarrely funny moment of solidarity and horror might be silly or cheap in any other context; here, it feels dead-on, because Showalter and Nanjiani never lose sight of the suffering their characters are going through. If anything, that suffering — the unthinkable anxiety of worrying you might lose your child — heightens the absurdity of what we’re seeing.
The cast helps tremendously. Nanjiani initially brings a detached, self-deprecating wise-guy quality to his performance, walking through life as if he were living in his own stand-up act. But as he becomes more emotionally involved with what’s going on around him — more engaged and impassioned — the film clicks into focus. Hunter and Romano make for a nice study in contrasts. She’s fast as lightning and always on the lookout for an outrage, a slight, a cause. He’s unassuming to a fault, applying the same devil-may-care delivery to insights both mundane (“You go online, they hate Forrest Gump. Fucking best movie ever made”) and profound (“Being a parent. It’s a nightmare. Loving somebody this much sucks”). But Kazan’s performance might be the key here. Her Emily is vivacious, complicated, anxious, forthright — and once she’s mostly removed from the narrative, her spirit hangs like an insistent ghost over the other characters. Like them, we want her to get better so we can have her back.
The Big Sick was produced by Judd Apatow, and it shares with some of Apatow’s recent films an attempt to break out of the bubble of improvisatory comic fancy and locate itself amid the messiness of real life. (Even the very direct title has an Apatowian echo with such previous movies as Funny People and This Is 40.) And not unlike some other Apatow productions, it has its saggy moments: The various bits of (probably improvised) banter between Nanjiani and his fellow stand-up comics are pretty funny the first 1,300 times we see them, but they start to get tiresome after a while. Still, those are minor concerns. For the vast majority of its running time, The Big Sick astutely pulls you between the twin poles of agony and glee.