When I write out Judd Apatow’s name in this space, it’s usually in conjunction with some grousing about his creative shortcomings, which have spread across the field of cinematic comedy like spilled Fresca. Apatow is a rambunctiously creative filmmaker, but he also lacks discipline in his craftsmanship, leading to lopsided works that compromise their own insights with wearying rambles. And his success has fostered a broader culture of similarly bloated comedies.
I stand by that assessment, because I’ve seen too many promising films collapse under their own teetering weight. But I also don’t give Apatow enough credit for the ways in which that same expansive nature manifests as a generosity that brings valuable voices in the current cultural sphere, specifically those voices that it’s difficult to imagine with a prominent platform if not for Apatow’s advocacy. In the latest example, The Big Sick would likely not exist if comedian Kumail Nanjiani hadn’t casually shared with Apatow the surprisingly fraught story of his courtship with his eventual wife, Emily V. Gordon, and if Apatow hadn’t responded with the specific encouragement the he’s capable of backing up with supporting action: “That should be a movie, and you should write it.”
Nanjiani did follow the advice to sit down and make the story a screenplay — crafting it alongside Gordon — and he stars as Kumail, an aspiring stand-up comedian in Chicago. One night, his on-stage equilibrium is disrupted when a woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) offers loud verbal encouragement from the crowd during his set. He finds her afterward and explains that the “whoo-hoo” she lobbed from the audience technically counts as a heckle and was therefore rude. On the movie “meet cute” scale, it’s a more satisfying beginning than most. Kumail and Emily embark on a relationship of tentative escalation that nicely captures the common uncertainty of people coming together in their twenties, when a precariously solidifying sense of an adult self can collide with a desire to connect with another.
And then the film finds its way to the plot turn that gives The Big Sick its title. More valuably, the development gives the movie a greater weight. Since Nanjiani and Gordon are drawing on true events from their own life together, they avoid the sort of maudlin nonsense that might have sunk the film had it been dreamed up by some indie comedy Nicholas Sparks disciple. Without compromising the ringing, character-driven humor that drives the film, the story properly digs into the pinballing between fear and hope that defines that sort of situation.
There are shortcomings. While Nanjiani is consistently engaging, some moments are a touch beyond his capabilities as an actor, an issue that is simultaneously compensated for and accentuated by the sterling performances of Kazan, and supporting players Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. And Michael Showalter’s directing job is a little pedestrian, draining some of the impact from moments big and small. But the film ultimately pushes past the little problems. Combine the emotional honesty of the main plot with the insightful and welcome explorations of how Kumail’s background as a member of a Pakistani immigrant family impacts his ability to navigate an on-edge society, and it’s clear that The Big Sick offers an object lesson in something credited producer Apatow knows well: familiar narrative rhythms can get a boost from a specificity of voice.