‘The Big Sick’ is small movie that makes big impact

Holly Hunter, from left, Ray Romano and Kumail Nanjiani star in “The Big Sick.” Contributed by Nicole Rivelli/Lionsgate via AP

Holly Hunter, from left, Ray Romano and Kumail Nanjiani star in “The Big Sick.” Contributed by Nicole Rivelli/Lionsgate via AP

Yes, there are alternatives to warring CGI overload at movie theaters this summer. You don’t have to hole up at home praying to the Netflix, Amazon and Hulu gods for cinematic salvation until the fall.

Case in point: “The Big Sick,” a small movie that makes a big impact. While a romantic comedy on the surface, it plumbs emotional depths, all while never losing its insightful sense of humor.

The brainchild of comedian-writer Kumail Nanjiani, best-known as Dinesh on the HBO series “Silicon Valley,” “The Big Sick” gets added heft from the fact that it’s largely autobiographical. When combined with the strong performances, especially from a positively electric Holly Hunter, this is a film that fires on all cylinders.

Nanjiani plays himself, a Pakistani Muslim immigrant trying to make it as a stand-up on the Chicago comedy circuit. One night, a woman in the audience good-naturedly heckles him, leading to a conversation with her after he gets off stage. She turns out to be Emily (Zoe Kazan) and they soon become much more than upstaged performer and overly zealous crowd member.

Because she’s a white American, he keeps her a secret from his family who only want him to marry a South Asian Muslim. His mother has made it her maternal mission to invite any available young Muslim women to “casually” drop by while the family is having dinner — yet it’s all to no avail.

But, wait, there’s more. Kamail’s not just keeping his budding romance a secret; he can’t bring himself to tell his family that he’s no longer sure if he believes in all the tenets of Islam either. He’s not even praying five times a day anymore and hasn’t in a long time.

The issue of being torn between two cultural worlds and two continents would be enough for most films of this type. But fate then throws Kumail and Emily a nearly knockout curveball that will change both of their lives, taking “The Big Sick” to another level.

Directed by Michael Showalter, who made the similarly warm, humane and honest comedy “Hello, My Name Is Doris” with Sally Field two years ago, “The Big Sick” could have jumped headlong into the sap and melodrama. Instead, it balances the comedic, dramatic and melancholic with a juggler’s aplomb.

Low-key Nanjiani doesn’t have to do much but be himself, but he’s surrounded by pros. As Emily’s mom, Hunter taps into rage, grief and humor in equal measure and delivers a memorable performance that practically begs for a supporting-actress Oscar nomination. Ray Romano’s turn as Emily’s dad isn’t as caustically sharp but it’s similarly authentic.

What’s also remarkable about “The Big Sick,” which Nanjiani co-wrote with his real-life wife Emily V. Gordon, is how it gets beneath the one-dimensional American image of Asian and Muslim men as just either sexless IT geeks or gun-toting terrorists. Like what Aziz Ansari is doing with his groundbreaking Netflix series “Master of None,” Nanjiani creates South Asians who are real people, not punchlines, though there’s enough humor to keep the whole thing from becoming heavy-handed. In this sense, even though the film rarely raises its voice, it’s revolutionary.

“The Big Sick,” which is opening slowly across the country, has the potential to do what such films as “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Manchester by the Sea” or “Lion” did by starting out as a more of an arthouse film, earning enthusiastic word of mouth, and then expanding into multiplexes everywhere.

It couldn’t come at a better time.


“The Big Sick”

Grade: B+

Starring Kumail Nanjiani, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano and Zoe Kazan. Directed by Michael Showalter.

Rated R for strong language including sexual references. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 59 minutes.

Bottom line: A romantic comedy that plumbs emotional depths