By now, the Judd Apatow brand of comedy has been picked apart and parodied to death. It's a lot of "you look like [insert pop culture reference here]" jokes, repeated ad nauseam for maximum effect, plus an infantile main character who learns to live and love over the span of 120 minutes (or 10 episodes).
Despite all this, what keeps Judd in everyone's good graces—besides making everyone millions of dollars—is how much he nurtures emerging comedians. From directing Amy Schumer in Trainwreck to producing Lena Dunham's Girls, Pete Holmes's Crashing, Paul Rust's Love, and now Kumail Nanjiani's The Big Sick, he cultivates enough fresh voices to make up for the fact that they all speak a similar language.
In that vein, The Big Sick proves to be another Apatow-spawned home run. Nanjiani, who most people know from Silicon Valley, stars as himself: a young Pakistani stand-up comedian living in Chicago and trying to ward off his mother's attempts to find him a suitable Muslim wife. In between sets, he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan), a young woman who hops into his bed but isn't interested in a relationship. Despite her protestations she and Kumail start dating, until he can't hide his family's preferences any longer and Emily storms out. Soon after, she gets incredibly sick and Kumail is called to help, where of course he realizes that this prone woman is the love of his life. Now he has to just convince her, and her visiting parents, of the same.
Nanjiani doesn't exactly nail his more dramatic moments, especially when he's confronted about a secret cigar box full of potential wife photos. Kazan is able to emote enough for the two of them, but Nanjiani just doesn't have the range. Serious acting is not his forte, though he's wise to keep it within reasonable limits.
Where he absolutely shines is in every scene with Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, playing Emily's parents Terry and Beth. Hunter remains one of our finest actresses; though Beth is far more wizened and steely eyed than in Jane in Broadcast News, she's just as utterly charming when someone breaks through to her core. Watching her come to love Kumail is the dream scenario for every male suitor who has to win over a stone-cold potential mother-in-law.
And Romano gives his best performance maybe ever: as Terry becomes Kumail's buddy in his own right and forces impromptu conversations about martial issues and being a father, Nanjiani gets to engage in some brilliant deadpan as he struggles for an exit. But it's the funny kind of struggle, as neither man tries to really hide their growing appreciation of each other. The dogged understatedness in which Kumail fights for Emily through her parents is the stuff of beauty.
Mercifully, in this era of the aforementioned Crashing, Showtime's I'm Dying Up Here, and any number of other TV shows and films that provide an inside look into the world of comedy, co-writers Nanjiani and his real-life wife Emily V. Gordon are wise to keep stand-up as Kumail's profession and not the main focus. Sure, we still get a sequence where he melts down on stage, reveals his true self, and ultimately uses that experience to not only fuel a more personal act but also get the girl. But nobody ever said The Big Sick would be original; what it lacks in novelty, it makes up for in heart.
And the story is truly touching; it's pretty unusual for a couple to write the movie about how they met, but Nanjiani and Gordon surely have the preeminent perspective on what made it unique. They also understand that while Kumail's Pakistani roots are the catalysts for so many events—and comedy is his life's passion—the movie lives and dies with Kumail and her parents. What bookends the movie is sweet and necessary, but the middle is what'll win you over. Another point to Judd.