Warm, funny and quietly risk-taking, this autobiographical love-story starring Silicon Valley stalwart Kumail Nanjiani gives the ailing romcom genre a topical shot in the arm. Wry rather than wacky, like Nanjiani’s self-deprecating stage act, it’s an intimate, character-based comedy with an improvisational feel.
Based on his fate-swiped real-life romance with wife Emily Gordon (his co-writer here), this Sundance Festival smash about a culture-clash Chicago courtship starts out full of low-key charm. Up-and-coming stand-up Kumail (Nanjiani) can’t commit to quirky psychology student Emily (a feisty Zoe Kazan), despite their great rapport. Bombarded with potential brides for an arranged marriage by his traditional Muslim family, he’s torn between family loyalty, his longing for stand-up success, and a love match.
Like a hipster My Big Fat Greek Wedding (opens in new tab), the film mines his parents’ relentless interference (his mother’s endless chain of ‘just dropped in’ eligible Pakistani girls is a running gag). Yet it’s affectionate rather than snarky. Acute about the problems of being a present-day American Muslim, the script is thoughtful but not earnest, and gutsy enough to drop a deadpan 9/11 joke that’ll get you gasping.
However, just when you think we’re in producer Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (opens in new tab) territory (man-child hero, wisecracking pals, emotional dilemma), the story swerves bravely into unexpected trauma. A mystery illness slams Kazan’s Emily into a medically induced coma, and Kumail into turmoil. This sudden burst of drama gives the film backbone and real jeopardy, as Emily’s parents Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) start a bedside vigil, where Kumail must earn his place.
Here’s when director Michael Showalter’s straightforward style comes into its own. Rather than While You Were Sleeping-ish screwball stylings, the film finds laughs in the awkwardness of the trio coming together. Nanjiani, his stage act morphing from one-man shows about Pakistani politics and cricket rules into a career-threatening confessional meltdown, shows a new range.
Hunter, who can slide from frail to fierce in a glance, is a delight, launching herself at a comedy-club heckler ordering Nanjiani to “Go back to Isis”. But Romano’s laconic, gaffe-prone Terry is the revelation, showing off the film’s careful, rounded characterisation with brio.
Injecting tension and tear-jerking moments among its gags, the film still manages to dodge both sickbed sentimentality and romcom predictability. Honest as well as hilarious, it deserves to propel the talented Nanjiani to the headliner status that Apatow-assisted comics such as Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer have claimed.