Movie Review: Cure for case of bad comedies

The Big Sick, produced by Judd Apatow, is the much-needed cure for a lackluster year of comedy.

The comedy film market has been feeling a little under the weather lately. Last week’s quiet release of Girl’s Trip yielded the year’s highest-grossing comedic release. Have you heard of it? Me neither.

Luckily, now we have The Big Sick. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January before spreading into wide release last month. Such a release deters it from being a box office dominator — it currently holds $30 million domestic, a healthy performance for what it is, but far from a blockbuster. But positive buzz for the film is spreading quicker than the flu.

And it’s well earned. Based on true events, the films centers on comedian Kumail Nanjiani (best known for Silicon Valley) and the story of how we met his wife, Emily Gordon (here portrayed by Zoe Kazan).

It’s an awkward start — they spend the night together after she sees him performing at a comedy club, but what was supposed to be a one-time thing evolves into a tentative relationship.

Their relationship lasts for several months, until it seems they’re both hiding something from the other.

Just when they seem ready to break things off, the title of the film rears its ugly head. Emily gets a serious lung infection and must be placed into a medically induced coma — something doctors force Nanjiani to consent to on the spot. Both families, neither of whom approve of whom the other is dating, tell Nanjiani to walk away. But seeing how desperate Emily and her family are, he decides to stay.

While the script co-written by the real-life couple certainly calls for more drama than comedy, Nanjiani is able to use his comedic chops well here. Much of Nanjiani’s humor derives from his drier-than-the-Sahara delivery that never strays out of a monotone, no matter how ridiculous his jokes get. The film also borrows talent from Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant and comedian Bo Burnham, who play — surprise, surprise — comedians.

Director Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer, Hello, My Name is Doris) amps up the drama with the help of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who play Emily’s parents. A Romeo and Juliet-style plot develops — Emily’s parents disapprove of Nanjiani, and his parents want him to marry a Pakistani woman.

Nanjiani’s job here couldn’t have been an easy one — he portrayed himself, sure, but exposing this intimate of a story to wide audiences must have been challenging. Thanks to him, the film feels immediately comfortable and warm, yet at the same time bringing something fresh to the table, like biting into a warm chocolate chip cookie.

The film is produced by Judd Apatow, whose recent switch from raunchy to sentimental comedy is a welcome one, mostly. Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck last year was a summer highlight, though his Netflix series Love is best left un-streamed.

The film feels remarkably Apatow — all characters get a payoff moment, and Hunter’s initially unlikable Beth turns out to be a highlight (shame on me for doubting Hunter in the first place).

Only about 60 percent of the film’s events actually happened, according to Nanjiani and Gordon. It makes sense — real life can’t be as perfectly packaged as a well-written film like this one.

But sometimes, it can be as sweet. What a refreshing reminder. ••

Logan Krum can be reached at lkrum@newspapermediagroup.com