Judd Apatow’s durable formula of timid man geeks, far-more-mature girlfriends and their huggably awkward parents gets a welcome infusion of cross-cultural tension—along with some scary medical realities—in The Big Sick, a dynamite romantic comedy of intimate proportions. Apatow is only the producer here (Michael Showalter directs with a minimum of stylistic intrusion), but the creative prime mover is actor-writer Kumail Nanjiani, better known as Silicon Valley’s peevish computer coder, Dinesh. Developing an autobiographical script with his co-screenwriter wife, the TV producer and podcaster Emily V. Gordon, Nanjiani shapes his story of a Chicago stand-up comic’s wobbly rise, a trajectory altered by love, illness and some much-needed belated backbone.
Hoodie-clad, backpacked Kumail (Nanjiani, modulating his nerd persona with impressive emotional depth) turns his Pakistani heritage into a source of laughs for club crowds. He’s got a dense one-man show involving charts about the game of cricket, and his sarcastic jokes often exploit racial anxieties. (Loudly arguing with his brother in a restaurant, he assures onlookers, “We hate terrorists—it’s okay.”) One night, Kumail’s routine is interrupted by a smiling new fan, Emily (Zoe Kazan, completely owning her scenes), and they spark up the kind of banter-crammed flirtation that movies like this have perfected. But Kumail can’t tell his fiercely attentive suburban parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, both excellent) about the white girl he’s seeing. Instead, he stashes their photos of arranged-marriage candidates in a cigar box and rides out a courtship that he secretly thinks is doomed to fail.