"The business of comedy," Kumail Nanjiani has explained, "is taking your personal experiences and making them relatable to other people."
He's done something like that often in his standup routines, but few have followed the rule as closely as he and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, have done in writing The Big Sick. That's the successful romantic comedy with the awkward title that's nominated for Best Original Story at the Academy Awards on Sunday.
The story follows, scene by scene, the events experienced by the two writers during their courtship 10 years ago. In life and on the screen, there's another rule of comedy Nanjiani believes in: "Comedy is a person in trouble. It's a person dealing with a situation that they're ill-equipped to handle."
As fate would have it, Nanjiani (who plays Dinesh on Silicon Valley) and Gordon were presented with not one but two situations they were ill-equipped to handle.
First, they fell in love.
Because Nanjiani grew up as a Muslim in Pakistan, his parents assumed he would have a traditional wedding, with the bride chosen by them. He couldn't bear to discuss this with his mother or father, fearing rage and rejection. So, as the couple discussed their own marriage, his parents were busily lining up potential daughters-in-law. Gordon, when she learned that Nanjiani had kept her own existence secret, was furious.
Then the good fairy who distributes themes to needy writers brought in another hard-to-handle situation. Gordon experienced difficulty breathing and after visiting a hospital, doctors decided to put her in a medically induced coma. She recovered shortly after, but not before the four parents and Nanjiani got to know each other -- at first, painfully, and then cordially.
When they decided to tell their story, Nanjiani recalls, "we just had to figure out specifically how we could make it a comedy without losing the reality level of a very young woman being very ill."
In the film Nanjiani plays himself, under his own name. Gordon, a writer and a psychotherapist, but not an actor, is played with great charm by Zoe Kazan under the name Emily. Altogether, what we have is an autobiographical/romantic comedy -- not a genre listed in many movie textbooks. Like all autobiographies, though, this one no doubt tidies up the narrative and improves on the anecdotes.
As a result, The Big Sick is a comedy that works well because it's grounded in seriousness. When Kazan's character is upset with her boyfriend, and they briefly break up, she speaks with such force that we're reminded for a moment that these people are settling the course of their lives. Then, when a joke breaks the mood, it's twice as funny as it would be otherwise.
The result is a generous-spirited, good-hearted experience, beautifully cast and directed with crisp efficiency by Michael Showalter. Kumail's parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) and Emily's (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) deliver the comic lines as if they believe them -- the only way to do so.
The film proves there's still life yet in the grand old tradition of romantic comedy, providing the talent is fresh and the script pays eloquent tribute to one of the great preoccupations of our time.
In this case, the comedy arises from, and throws fresh light on, the rise of marriages between individuals from different traditions. This of course is a well-worn source of humour, but it's rarely handled with the easygoing grace of The Big Sick.