Those familiar with the work of Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, This Is 40, Funny People) will recognize his influence on The Big Sick: even though Apatow is only a producer on the film, which is directed by alt-comedy maven Michael Showalter and co-written by Khumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, his influence looms large. Like Apatow’s better films, The Big Sick is a big-hearted, snappy, occasionally digressive comedy about juggling family, work, and love in modern America. It’s made unique by the culturally specific comedic voice of Nanjiani, playing himself as a fledgling stand-up comic hustling in Chicago and trying to keep his matchmaking mother at bay (his parents, both Pakistani immigrants, insist that he marry a good Muslim girl). Khumail’s situation gets complicated when he falls for an adorably wonky psychology student named Emily, played by Zoe Kazan (a latter-day Annie Hall to his Alvy Singer); things get more complicated still when she undergoes hospitalization for a severe infection and he is forced to bond awkwardly with her distressed parents, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. The film’s deployment of familiar rom-com conventions—break-ups and make-ups and montage sequences of the rituals of coupledom—is rounded out by its willingness to look beyond the vantage point of its central couple in order to consider other relationships and other conflicts, with both sets of parents acting as foils for Khumail and Emily.
The most delightful thing about this pleasant but somewhat slight film is the surprising and potent chemistry between Romano and Hunter—and between the two of them and Nanjiani, who makes an appealing third wheel. There’s a wonderful series of scenes about midway through the film when the three of them spend an evening together eating and drinking and gradually warming to one another; it’s especially satisfying to see Hunter’s brittle exterior slowly thaw. It’s been over ten years since Hunter gave a memorable performance (in Rodrigo Garcia’s portmanteau film Nine Lives ), and seeing her here is enough to make you hope that she’ll continue to find more good roles. At fifty-nine, she has the same spitfire charm she showed thirty years ago in Broadcast News. Romano’s charms are quieter, looser, sleepier, even as he towers over Hunter by what looks like two feet. Together they make up the funniest and most compelling of this film’s many odd couples.