East meets West, with complications, in The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick (Nicole Rivelli | Studio Canal)

Another sticky summer settles over the Hudson Valley like a hot wet rag, and the prospect of sitting in an over-air-conditioned cinema for a couple of hours suddenly beckons more enticingly. So also does film fare that’s lightweight and easily digestible. But you’ve already taken in as much as you can stomach of superheroes for one season. What to do when it’s too humid to think?

Ah, it’s time for a good romantic comedy. And by “good,” we mean one that’s not too stupid even for summer viewing. For years this critic avoided any product with the name Judd Apatow associated with it, based on my aversion to the white-American-male-stuck-in-perpetual-adolescence point of view that characterized his early output. Thankfully, the guy seems to have grown up somewhat, and found his niche in producing movies that give promising young comics their footholds on fame. This year he has done that for Kumail Nanjiani, and the timing – in terms of the political zeitgeist – couldn’t be more right.

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Best-known as a regular on Silicon Valley, Nanjiani was born in Pakistan to a Shiite Muslim family, so he tends to get cast as either a Middle Eastern terrorist or a South Asian IT/gamer geek. The latter is not so far from the truth, but contending with the sort of hecklers who voted for Trump has been an occupational hazard. His new passion project, The Big Sick, may serve to change all that.

Co-written with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, the film is highly autobiographical and stars Nanjiani as himself. Like his trademark standup schtik, this is not a story about a comedian who “just happens to be” Pakistani, but rather about how profoundly his origins and subsequent Americanization have shaped his life. For Gen Y and Millennial arrivistes, we discover, the immigrant experience differs in significant ways from the old Ellis Island narratives: The chasms of culture and religion and ideology are often bridged by the ubiquity of electronic media. Young Kumail grew up on Hollywood horror and science fiction B-movies; when his family thinks he’s bowing towards Mecca five times daily, he’s actually playing videogames. Even his traditionalist parents organize their lives around their cellphones.

In so many ways, the world has grown smaller and there’s no going back. But Kumail’s parents (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff) and brother (Adeel Akhtar) remain heavily invested in the young man’s adherence to the practice of arranged marriage. Kumail endures an awkward parade of “drop-ins” by prospective Pakistani brides to his family dinner gatherings, but his heart leads him elsewhere when he meets a thoroughly American woman, Emily (Zoe Kazan).

From the get-go, Kumail and Emily have amazing chemistry. And before their first date is over, they’re throwing up protective smokescreens of commitmentphobia, too terrified to acknowledge what is apparent to the audience: that they are very good for each other. Before long, Emily’s still-offscreen parents know all about the skittery romance; Kumail’s do not. It’s quite clear that they would disown him. When that sinks in, Emily gives him the heave-ho, leaving neither one happy.

That’s when things start to get complicated on a deeper level. Kumail is summoned by a mutual friend to a hospital where Emily has been admitted with sudden mysterious symptoms, which soon become life-threatening. Mistaken for her husband, Kumail signs a permission form for Emily to be placed into a medically induced coma – where she will remain for about half the movie’s length, during which time her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) seize the spotlight. At first they push Kumail away, knowing that their daughter has broken up with him and suspicious of his ethnic and religious background. But shared stress leads to many revelations about the sorts of issues that can arise even in a non-arranged marriage; and a night of watching Kumail’s comedy act be interrupted by a racist audience member prompts unexpected bonding with Terry and Beth.

Some of what goes on here is predictable: Kumail will be forced to examine his priorities and figure out how to stand up to his family without alienating them entirely. When Emily eventually is conscious again, she’s not on the same page with Kumail; she hasn’t witnessed his enforced maturation (which, happily, includes an increased ability to perceive the potential brides recruited by his parents as distinct individuals who are as tired of the matchmaking charade as he is). Though we know the true-life outcome, the resolution doesn’t come neatly and easily. There are costs to all sides.

And that’s as it should be. The Big Sick is a rom/com that’s sweet and funny but complex and smart, not too frothy. It addresses real issues in the modern world. Love may build bridges, but it doesn’t conquer all. Kudos are due this couple for putting so much of their own pain and difficulty into this ultimately uplifting screenplay, which encourages us all to explore better ways to communicate with one another – whether we come from the same culture or not.