Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick (Lionsgate/Amazon Studios)

 How’s this for a romantic comedy premise? A Pakistani-born, struggling comedian goes against his conservative Muslim parents’ wishes to get a traditional arranged marriage and dates a white girl behind their backs, only she suddenly gets sick with an unknown illness and is placed in an induced coma. If that sounds a little too strange for fiction, that’s because it is the true story of comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon.

Nanjiani has been around the comedy scene for quite a while, and in the last few years has been popping up in supporting roles, most notably as Dinesh on HBO’s Silicon Valley. Eventually he crossed paths with Judd Apatow, who along with producer Barry Mendel, commissioned Nanjiani and Gordon to write their unbelievable story. Stepping into the director shoes is Michael Showalter, hot off the success of Hello, My Name is Doris and Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. Add in supporting performances by Ray Romano and the Holly Hunter and this dream team has crafted one of the highlights of the year.

Nanjiani plays a version of himself back when he was doing comedy club gigs in Chicago, where he meets Emily (played by Zoe Kazan), who is in grad school to become a therapist. Both are focused on their careers, so they agree that neither of them is looking to get into a serious relationship. They adhere to Kumail’s “two-day” rule, which stipulates that keeping two days’ time between seeing each other means they aren’t technically a couple and therefore are keeping it casual. Of course, the two end up breaking his rule and wind up in a real relationship.

The major obstacle standing in the couple’s way—that is, before the aforementioned coma—is Kumail’s parents, who will disown him if he doesn’t get an arranged marriage. The women his family sets him up with are not all duds, but Kumail wants to live what he believes to be an American life. To his mother and father (played by Zenobia Shroff and Bollywood legend Anupam Kher), his comedy is just a hobby, and they fully expect him to find a good career and settle into a traditional Muslim life. What they don’t know is that comedy is Kumail’s career choice and he hasn’t prayed in years.

Once Emily gives him an ultimatum to break the truth to his parents, he decides to go back to his preordained life, and the couple splits up, which is where the second-act break would be in a traditional romcom. However, as this is based on true life, the unexpected happens: Emily becomes very sick. Ex-boyfriend or not, Kumail is still a devoted guy. Not only does he stay the night with her in the intensive care unit but he falsely claims he is her husband and signs the order for her to be put into an induced coma. The next day, her parents, Beth and Terry (Hunter and Romano), show up. Kumail should be off the hook, but as stated before, he’s a devoted guy, so he keeps coming back to the hospital and hanging with her parents until things are resolved.

If Hello, My Name is Doris was Showalter’s Woody Allen film, then The Big Sick is his James L. Brooks tribute. That’s fitting, considering Hunter was the lead in Brooks’s Broadcast News (1987). Similarities between The Big Sick and Brooks’s work are clear, and very welcome: the mixture of romance, comedy, and heavy drama; and a story that takes its time to develop characters, allowing them to have deep moments with each other. Most memorably, the night before an exploratory surgery, Kumail, Beth, and Terry scavenge whatever alcohol Emily has in her apartment and get drunk together. What occurs between the three of them is a courtship all its own. Of course, Hunter is on her game, but what is most surprising is the chemistry between Romano and Nanjiani, as one generation of comedian connects with the next.

The Big Sick is a film that juggles many balls at once and manages to make it to the end without dropping a single one. There isn’t enough space to go on at length about everything that stands out. Kazan is a delight as Emily, and Kumail’s family dinners could also be a weekly series. His fellow performers at the comedy club, portrayed by Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, and Kurt Braunohler, fire off on each other so very well, and Showalter segues to that world at just the right times. Then there’s Nanjiani. Hats off to him for his first big film role. No doubt we haven’t seen the last of him.

Directed by Michael Showalter
Written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani
Released by Lionsgate/Amazon Studios
USA. 119 min. Rated R
With Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, and Ray Romano