I like to think that, had I moved to LA, as I talked about doing throughout my twenties, and taken even a lackadaisical whack at realizing my dream of working in the movie business, I could've been Judd Apatow. I could've been the guy who redefined film comedy. I could've been envied for my Midas touch for discovering fresh talent. Maybe in my next incarnation.
Meanwhile, my inner Apatow is constantly on high alert, one eye out for the next big trend, the other for the next big star. And, for what it's worth — which, I'm guessing, will prove rather less than Apatow nets as producer of The Big Sick — I can say I spotted Kumail Nanjiani first. From the moment in 2011 when I saw him play a cellphone salesman on "Portlandia," I knew he was going to be huge.
Watch that clip and you'll see a) Nanjiani is charismatic, borderline adorable; b) his timing and delivery are flawless; and c) the camera loves him. I recall reading an interview with the show's cocreator, Fred Armisen, in which he recounted asking the Pakistan-born comic to come up with something about phone plans. Presto, Nanjiani pulled that classic bit out of his hat. So, d) the dude can write comedy.
Six years, a dozen sitcom stints and a smattering of small movie roles later, Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, have written the year's best comedy, an Annie Hall for the age of ISIS. The Big Sick is inspired by the couple's real-life courtship. Nanjiani plays a slightly fictionalized version of himself, and Zoe Kazan costars as Emily.
The picture re-creates Nanjiani's days as a struggling Chicago standup. One night he finds himself semi-heckled by a young woman and winds up bringing her home. They continue to see each other while insisting with deadpan seriousness that they're not dating. Nonetheless, it's clear the two are falling in love.
They're such appealing, deftly etched characters, it's a bummer when problems arise. First, Emily calls things off after learning Kumail has kept their relationship a secret from his strict Muslim parents. Next, she's rushed to the hospital with a potentially fatal illness requiring doctors to place her in a coma. No joke. That happened.
It's amazing how many different kinds of movie The Big Sick succeeds as. In addition to being a love story, a culture-clash comedy and a Funny People-style portrait of the comic milieu, it's a window into what it's like to be Muslim American in a post-9/11 world. Few comics could wring laughs from bits about terrorism, religious bigotry and, yup, ISIS, but Nanjiani makes it look effortless — even though his director is Michael Showalter, who last year inflicted Hello, My Name Is Doris on humanity.
I've saved the best for last. While Emily is in a coma, Kumail is left to contend with her distraught, distrusting parents, who've been told everything. As Terry and Beth, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are beyond brilliant. The film deepens with their arrival and takes one unexpected turn after another, right up until the credits roll (you'll want to stay). A couple dealing with their own problems and imperfections, they deserve an Apatow vehicle all their own. You know, This Is 60.
On the heels of producing Begin Again and Trainwreck, Apatow has just hit a career high. Who could've imagined his finest two hours would be made possible by a soft-spoken, slightly warped comic powerhouse who spent the first half of his life in Pakistan? Well, besides me.