We don’t get many genuine crowd-pleasers these days — movies that leave an audience feeling sated and content — and “The Big Sick” fulfills its part of the bargain so capably that it can withstand a little critical nitpicking. Besides, the movie’s smart enough to pick its own nits, or most of them. Trust me on this: Go.
You’ve seen Kumail Nanjiani as the deadpan coder Dinesh in HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” and you’ve seen him in a zillion smaller roles that merely require him to be goofy and Pakistani; such is the ethnic compartmentalization of American movies and TV. “The Big Sick” allows the actor and stand-up comedian to stretch, delightfully but not too much, as a version of himself in a romantic comedy-drama based on his own life, with direction from Michael Showalter (“Wet Hot American Summer”) and the rabbinical oversight of producer Judd Apatow, in whose universe the new movie comfortably nestles.
Like the man playing him, Kumail (Nanjiani) is a wry stand-up comic — the setting is Chicago — who was born in Pakistan and raised in America, with the double-life that that entails. On weekends, he goes to his parents’ house in the suburbs for dinner, during which his mother (a warmly inflexible Zenobia Shroff) brings out yet another pretty young Muslim woman for her son to consider marrying. During the rest of the week, he hangs out with his fellow comics (Bo Burnham and, from “SNL,” Aidy Bryant) and finds himself increasingly attracted to Emily (Zoe Kazan), a genial heckler at one of his shows.
Problem: She’s white, which is only a problem as it regards the hero’s divided sense of self. Further problem: She’s adorable, grounded and believable without becoming just one more of the movies’ many Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Actual problem: As their relationship flowers and falters, Emily finds herself in the hospital with a mysterious infection and out of the picture for long swaths of the running time.
“The Big Sick” thus threatens to become a story about one man’s personal growth by way of his girlfriend’s life-threatening illness, a navel-gazing notion the movie largely (but not completely) sidesteps with self-aware wit and unadorned, occasionally uninspired, filmmaking. Nanjiani is good company, modest and funny, and when Emily’s parents, Terry and Beth, show up for the hospital vigil, “The Big Sick” becomes something much richer.
They are played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, and as much as we love our own parents, you are forgiven if you briefly want these two to be yours, flaws and all. In addition to offering up an example of a mixed marriage that (mostly) works — he’s East Coast Jewish, she’s Southern Protestant — Terry and Beth play so well to the much-loved idiosyncrasies of the actors playing them that, like Kumail, we warm to them as they warm to this stranger by their daughter’s bedside.
Without sacrificing the laughs, Romano broadens his sitcom sad-sack persona to something more three-dimensionally human, and Hunter allows Beth, initially hostile to Kumail, to bloom with humor and rue. Most graciously, Nanjiani understands he’s the straight man in these scenes, and he steps back to let the older actors work their achingly comic charms. At its finest, “The Big Sick” is an ensemble piece about the tragic farce of coping with disaster.
There’s also the hero’s own family to contend with and confess to, and the movie features knowing, nuanced performances from Anupam Kher as Kumail’s father and Adeel Akhtar as Kumail’s older brother, the latter having negotiated his own truce between where he comes from and where he is. A distinct side benefit to “The Big Sick” is that its Muslim-American characters, fraught and hopeful and resigned and normal, are the kind that a lot of people in this country apparently need to see these days.
Does the movie resolve itself with a fair amount of narrative tidiness? Perhaps, but so has its star’s own life, which, according to the end credits, has mirrored the situations of “The Big Sick” to a large degree. The best endings in reality aren’t always the best fit for a movie, but here the screenwriters are the star and his own Emily (writer and wife Emily V. Gordon), and you’re inclined to cut them some slack. In interviews, Nanjiani is calling “The Big Sick” “poetic truthfulness,” which only sounds grandiose if you think poetry has to be epic. Sometimes poetry is small and hard-won, and it sends you home happy.
★ ★ ★ ½
THE BIG SICK
Directed by Michael Showalter. Written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. Starring Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, West Newton Cinema. 119 minutes. R (language including some sexual references).