Like very many contemporary U.S comedies - like all comedies produced by Judd Apatow - The Big Sick: A) is a very loose, shaggy assemblage; B) would significantly benefit from being less shaggy. Though in this case, at least, the shagginess is personable as hell, rather than just feeling like the filmmakers had absolutely no capacity to make hard choices in the editing room. The film is the fictionalised autobiography of how married podcasters and the co-creators of a stand-up comedy television show first met, which sounds like pure liquid hell to me, but it's hugely charming in fact, right up until it becomes something much better and more satisfying than charming. All while being shot in a unrelentingly ugly, flat aesthetic, and edited together with a bizarre indifference to creating even the smallest measure of visual rhythm. For like very many comedies, The Big Sick is also of the obvious opinion that aesthetics aren't necessary if you're funny.

And God knows, The Big Sick is certainly funny. I know nothing about the work of married writers Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself) and Emily V. Gordon (who does not), but the onscreen evidence of the film demonstrates an admirable mixture of sharply observation wit comfortably paired with extremes of generosity (there's only one character in the whole film that we're encouraged to dislike at all, a racist heckler at one of Kumail's stand-up shows). It's never bust-a-gut funny, not even watching it with a decent-sized, obviously appreciative audience, but it's exceedingly amusing in a light, affable register, even as it gets increasingly grey and grim in terms of the emotional states it depicts.

So anyway, the plot of the thing: Kumail is an Uber driver/fledgling comic) in Chicago (the couple married in 2007, but the film is firmly set in the mid-2010s), born in Pakistan and brought to the United States by his overweening parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff), whose solitary obvious concern for his life is that he'll end up marrying a devout Pakistani-American Muslim. Kumail self-evidently doesn't care to marry anyone, but one day after performing his set, he starts goofily flirting with Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), a University of Chicago psychology student, and they spend the next few months falling in love, always while making a big show of how not in love they are. It gets serious enough that Emily is appalled to learn how serious it isn't: fearing his parents' angry response, Kumail hasn't ever gotten around to telling them that he's dating a white girl, and when Emily asks him point blank if there's any hope for their future under such circumstances, he can't answer. They break up, and not more than a week later, Emily ends up in the emergency room with a  massive, hard-to-diagnose infection, and Kumail ends up holding the bag when somebody needs to sign off on putting her into an induced coma to save her life.

If there's a single legitimate, unanswerable problem with The Big Sick that's not just a disgruntled formalist crabbing about how the editing is for shit,* it's that the second film we're about to get is infinitely more interesting than the first, and it feels like an accident that should be the case. Actually, if there's two unanswerable problems, it's that Gordon & Nanjiani plugged the rather amazing story of their dating history into a romcom formula, breaking the characters up at the time of the coma, while the real-life people were still dating, which makes Kumail unnecessarily creepy a couple of times too often, and the film plainly doesn't realise this (him signing her coma order, even despite his obvious, stated discomfort with that idea - while she is, as near as we can tell, still responsive and alert! - is an astoundingly terrible thing that the movie barely even notices happened).

Anyway, the thing is that The Big Sick now abruptly leaps from "adorably immiserated thirtysomethings meet cute" into "stunned ex-boyfriend realises how badly he fucked up while also meeting her terrified, modestly hostile parents for the first time", and it becomes a manifestly superior movie. Emily's parents, Beth and Terry, are played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, and from the moment they show up to stiffly thank Kumail and shoo him on his way, The Big Sick becomes a much more interesting and deep and complicated movie, and I don't think they meant for it to. The movie is packing a lot of ideas, involving the courtship rituals of the not-terribly-young in the modern age (that's arguably a third problem: the leads read as substantial older than their characters act), and the travails of stand-up comics - this last subtheme, the most obviously Apatowian material and the most indefensibly navel-gazing, could have readily been chopped in half without even slightly harming the movie - but there's nothing in it that's close to as interesting as the tension between Kumail and the Gardners, in which he slowly comes to a form of peaceful co-habitation and actual companionship with both of them in different ways. And that leads to a slightly deflated feeling when ever the film e.g. goes back to the question of whether Kumail will win a slot in some Montréal comedy festival, it's kind of really hard to care. Hell, even when this is basically a spoiler, though not one the should come as even a little bit of a surprise, but nonetheless beware the obviously inevitable moment comes that Emily wakes up and is offended and outraged by Kumail's presence, my visceral response wasn't "oh no, he's lost the girl of his dreams", but "oh no, he doesn't get to hang out with Beth anymore" thus ends the spoiler.

Credit, though, for how extremely good the acting and writing is to get to the point where the Kumail/Beth/Terry material should be that wonderful. It's a good cast throughout  (even the aimless improv between comics moments feel anchored in character rather than just free-floating "I can out-quip you" tosh), and Kazan deserves much credit for making a fully fleshed-out woman out of the limited amount of screen time and material she's given, enough for that woman's comatose body to serve as the narrative engine for half the movie. But Hunter is clearly the MVP - the way that Hunter does tend to be - and Romano and Nanjiani both bring a lot to their parts. There's so much nervous fencing that we see: a cluster of three people who are all immensely sad, compelled for different reasons to disguise that sadness somewhat in the face of strangers. Just the way that Hunter can move her jaw like she wants to talk, but thinks better of it, than says something just a few degrees away from what she was at first, gives us an extraordinary sense of who Beth is, despite being sketched out less distinctly than any of the other main character. And Romano, doomed to never entirely shake the aura of a sitcom actor, does a fine job of presenting the idea that his character's dopey dad schlubbiness is a defense mechanism and plea for sympathy. Pitching these two against Nanjiani's bleary mixture of sorrow with a note of self-loathing guilt over what he's done and what he's doing, and we have a terrific three-hander, with character work that never gets in the way of the fact that this is, ultimately still a comedy, and even that it's ultimately a love story.

At any rate, the film is hugely agreeable and largely insightful, thoughtfully presenting a story of immigrant life that pointedly refuses to be the story of immigrant life, just as it refuses to be the story of parents and ex-boyfriends finding some level of accord. It's frankly a bit artless and it's merely nice for most of its first half, and the plot resolution is a blunt & explicit "well, we got married in real life, so you can guess how the rest went", and I'm honestly on the exact knife's edge between a 3.5-star and 4-star rating. But for something so endlessly amicable, you've just to give it a little bit of love.



*But seriously, the editing is for shit.