Sundance Report: Kumail Nanjiani Headlines Hilarious and Moving Comedy 'The Big Sick'

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment

The Big Sick is insanely funny. It’s also incredibly touching. Somehow the film manages to be equal parts both at once — not an easy balancing act to pull off — which is why it has been one of the best early surprises in Park City after premiering to a standing ovation for cowriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon Friday night at the Sundance Film Festival. (The film was acquired Saturday by Amazon Studios for $12 million in one of the biggest deals in Sundance history.)

Real-life married couple Nanjiani (the Pakistani-American comedian best known for Silicon Valley) and Gordon (a North Carolina-raised therapist-turned-journalist-turned-screenwriter) based the comedy on their relationship, and the story feels not only authentic to its core but exactly like the type of love story America needs in 2017.

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Kumail (Nanjiani) is a standup comedian/Uber driver in Chicago whose strict Muslim parents make relentless attempts to set him up with young Pakistani women in a contemporary, Americanized version of arranged marriage. After a set one night, he hooks up with Emily (Zoe Kazan), a psychology grad with her own troubled romantic past.

Though both attempt to resist, a relationship blooms. The chemistry between Nanjiani (typically and perfectly sardonic) and Kazan (magnetic and wry) is effortless, even when everything eventually comes crashing down and they call it a day.

While Kumail humors his family’s matchmaking attempts and toils with his posse of comics (including SNL‘s Aidy Bryant) as they aim for a coveted slot in an upcoming comedy festival, Emily falls gravely ill with a throat infection and is put into a medically induced coma. Kumail soon finds himself camped out at the hospital agonizing over her increasingly worrisome state.

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There he’s joined by Emily’s fierce mother and more mild-mannered father, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano in performances so strong we might be talking about them during next year’s awards rounds. As good as Nanjiani and Kazan are together, the interaction between Kumail and Emily’s parents — from uneasy union to eventual bond forged by their mutual devotion to Emily — injects poignancy into the film’s equally funny second half.

The Big Sick is directed by Michael Showalter, the Wet Hot American Summer and The State alum who also helmed the underrated comedies They Came Together and Hello, My Name Is Doris, and produced by king of comedy Judd Apatow.

Two years ago Apatow directed and produced the uproarious Amy Schumer vehicle Trainwreck, which capitalized on the comedien’s growing buzz and helped catapult her into major stardom. This film could be the same propellant for its driving force, Nanjiani. He gives a fresh and roundly hilarious performance while — much like Aziz Ansari in the Netflix hit Master of None — giving a voice to the South Asian-American experience. He also delivers the most cutting 9/11 joke committed to film yet — one that had the Sundance crowd laughing so loud the next 10 seconds of dialogue were inaudible (and one that you have to reserve judgment on until you see it). You get the distinct feeling watching The Big Sick that Nanjiani has a healthy dose of gems like this to come. Don’t be surprised if they’re written in partnership with his wife.