Nanjiani and his real-wife wife, Emily V. Gordon, share screenwriting credit in director Michael Showalter's comedy, in which they tell the mostly true story of how they got together. It starts with Kumail, who left Pakistan with his parents when he was a child, now working as an Uber driver and a struggling stand-up comedian in Chicago. (If you've seen Nanjiani as one of the stars of HBO's "Silicon Valley," or his scene-stealing moments in "Portlandia" or "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates," you know the comedy thing eventually worked out for him.)
Kumail is a doting son, visiting his parents, Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharpen (Zenobia Shroff), for weekly dinners. There are three constants at these dinners: Kumail's brother, Naveed (Adeel Akhtar), and his silent wife; Kumail spending a few minutes in the basement praying to Allah (but really just looking at his phone); and some single Pakistani woman "unexpectedly" dropping by to audition for a part in Kumail's inevitable arranged marriage.
One night after a gig, Kumail chats up Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), a psychology grad student, and there's an instant chemistry so much so that they land in bed together on the first date. One date becomes two, then three, then hanging out together a lot. One would call them a couple, though a short-lived one: When Emily discovers Kumail has never told his parents about her, she breaks up with him.
Before he can make amends, Kumail gets a phone call: Emily is in the hospital, and someone needs to be with her until her parents arrive from North Carolina. The doctors tell him that Emily has an infection, and they must put her into a medically induced coma immediately. He is still in the waiting room when her parents, Terry and Beth (Holly Hunter), arrive. They wonder why Kumail wants to hang around, given how things ended between him and Emily, but his persistence wears them down, and the three start to get to know each other.
Nanjiani and Gordon's script doesn't just chronicle the events of their rocky early relationship; Showalter's smooth, unobtrusive direction gives the characters room to breathe. They're not merely re-enacting what happened to Kumail and Emily, they're exploring why it did and letting us see them fall in love and understand all that goes into that.
Nanjiani gives a career-defining performance that's funny, charming and sensitive; in other words, a perfect leading man for a romantic comedy. Kazan has to do more with less screen time since Emily is out of commission for the middle of the movie and she makes her scenes count with tenderness and a sharp wit. Together, particularly in their heart-wrenching pre-breakup argument, they have a chemistry that makes their love story authentic. And their supporting cast, notably the four actors playing their parents, add the right grace notes to the mix.
For a breezy romantic comedy, "The Big Sick" packs in a lot of meaning as it touches on racism, religion, infidelity, forgiveness, and divides between cultures and generations. Where some movies would just settle for some good laughs, this one does that and warms the heart, too.
'The Big Sick'
A couple's romance hits some bumps, and a major medical crisis, in this warm and funny modern romance.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Friday, July 7.
Rating • R for language including sexual references.
Running time • 119 minutes.