PLOT A Pakistani-American comedian breaks cultural tradition by falling for a white woman.
CAST Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano
RATED R (language, sexual situations)
BOTTOM LINE Nanjiani’s autobiographical movie turns hot-button issues of immigration and racism into a heartwarming romantic comedy.
Very few names or details have been changed to protect anybody in “The Big Sick,” an autobiographical comedy written by and starring Kumail Nanjiani. The story of a Pakistani-American comedian who bucks tradition by falling for a white woman, “The Big Sick” is one of those personal little movies that seems destined to become a crowd-pleasing hit. A rom-com with a cross-cultural twist, it’s this year’s “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” with the added benefit — or burden — of hitting theaters during one of the most rancorous and racially charged moments in modern American history.
Nanjiani, best known as the prickly tech guy Dinesh on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” plays Kumail, a barely disguised version of himself. At a Chicago comedy club one night, Kumail manages to turn a cheeky heckler, Emily (a charming Zoe Kazan), into a casual fling. Things get progressively more serious until Emily learns that Kumail lacks the courage to avoid his fate: an arranged marriage. Suddenly, in a plot twist that seems like a contrivance — though it’s true — Emily becomes so ill that she ends up in a coma. While keeping watch at the hospital with Emily’s parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, both wonderful), Kumail realizes he might well lose the love of his life.
Like Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series, “Master of None” — another autobiographical story about a South Asian comedian navigating American culture — “The Big Sick” sometimes sounds like stand-up material transcribed into screenplay format. Nevertheless, “The Big Sick” feels like its own creation, perhaps because Nanjiani, who is married and about five years older than the still-single Ansari, brings a dollop of wisdom and writerly hindsight to his own tale. (Nanjiani’s wife, Emily V. Gordon, co-wrote the script.)
In interviews, Nanjiani has fielded questions about his movie’s message during a time of widespread anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment, but “The Big Sick” is first and foremost a love story. By avoiding any pointed rhetoric or up-to-the-minute references, “The Big Sick” stays sweet and pure, no more overtly political than “Coming to America,” “Moscow on the Hudson” or any other immigrant romance. Sweet, funny and warmhearted, “The Big Sick” tells a quintessentially American story, which is really the only statement it needs to make.