By definition, a punchline is “the words at the end of a joke or story that make it funny or surprising.”  Superb comedians dream of finding good ones they can wrap a story around and always refining their material for the right comedic effect for their audiences.  The Big Sick can confidently boast a self-evident punchline that lasts for over two hours and never runs out of the funny or the surprising.

The premise of this SXSW festival favorite sounds downright nutty and nonsensical.  A man and woman from different cultural backgrounds fall for each other only to be pushed apart and forced to face family drama when one of them is placed in a medically-induced coma to treat an unknown disease that could cost their life.  Is your eyebrow raised oddly?  You’re not alone.  Best of all, as ludicrous as this whole thing sounds, it is the true story of TV comic actor Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon.  

The Pakistani-born Kumail (playing himself) is a struggling stand-up comedian and Uber driver in Chicago when he is heckled on stage one night by a confident and sprightly young woman in the audience named Emily (Zoe Kazan of the underseen Ruby Sparks).  They meet and converse after the show over drinks, but she rebuffs his advances to date.  Emily says she’s not in the right place for a relationship and, elsewhere, Kumail has to weather the carousel of matchmaking attempts of his parents (Anupam Kher of Silver Linings Playbook and Zenobia Shroff) demanding a traditional arranged marriage.

Instead, one-night-stands turn into shared quality time and burgeoning affection that flirts with the “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” labels.  After an argument turns their bliss into a break-up, The Big Sick transitions to a place of patience when Emily is rushed to an emergency room and placed in her necessary and doctor-ordered lethargy.  Blitzed by fear at first, Kumail is joined by Emily’s intimidating parents Terry and Beth (Emmy winner Ray Romano and Oscar winner Holly Hunter), and the haze of dread shared between them breaks way to awkward laughs and growing hearts.

To call The Big Sick merely a “passion project” for Kumail Nanjiani is an understatement.  The comedian’s commitment to bare his soul and reconstruct a difficult time in his life for unlimited and unflinching humor is downright extraordinary.  The curve of his smirk can say a million things.  Occupying nearly every scene, Nanjiani strikes upon a level of mammoth heart and monumental charm that isn’t matched in the efforts of mainstream comedy actors of today, men with names like Ferrell, Sandler, Rogen, and Hart.  Dare I say, this is Oscar-worthy work juggling comedy and drama with equal levels of confidence.  This is dauntlessness more than it is simply amusing spunk.  

The cast behind the lead of Michael Showalter’s follow-up to Hello, My Name is Doris is equally impeccable.  Every role, from the largest part to the smallest, exudes a veritable candor springing forth from the performers that give The Big Sick a heart-stealing genuineness.  When she is awake, Zoe Kazan perfectly embodies a woman worth waiting for while still carrying believable and well-measured insecurities.  Kumail’s authentic fellow stand-up pals, played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and Kurt Braunohler, are playing confidants more than they are playing their bits.  Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, who are both pushing 60, infuse parental discontent into their own flames of wry humor.  All of it works.  There’s not a bad apple in the bunch.

One might look at all of this and think all this really adds up to be is an improved and indie-minded version of While You Were Sleeping.  Don’t sell this film short.  The Big Sick is one of the best romantic comedies of this short century and one of the best films of 2017, period.  The delightful chemistry of Kumail and Emily’s delayed courtship accentuates compelling adoration far more than Sandra Bullock voiceovers and a hapless Bill Pullman.  

The beauty is in the writing.  Nanjiani and Gordon together penned the screenplay of their journey from their gut and their funny bone.  The Big Sick nimbly moves with a constant levity, even when the potential for heavy drama invades.  That jocular wit makes you appreciate any of the lows that sneak up on you because they arrive bearing tissues for your smiling eyes.  

LESSON #1: A DASH OF THE IMMIGRANT’S PLIGHT-- The Big Sick does an exceptional job of telling an immigrant’s journey in America without entirely becoming a flaming Islamic My Big Fat Greek Wedding (kudos to Kher and Shroff).  Refreshingly, Kumail identifies himself as an American before he does a Muslim as a non-religious man who doesn’t know what he believes.  His struggle and the reactive pressures of tradition from his family are common among almost any demographic.

LESSON #2: YOU WORRY ABOUT THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE-- Once this film shifts to the hospital waiting rooms and the nerves of Beth and Terry, the worry sets in.  Emily’s parents are supposed to be the ones there every day sweating the unknown trepidation.  The only way Kumail can match that worry is if he really loves Emily.  If he was just some booty call dude, he would have moved on to the next conquest.  He’s a keeper but still has to prove it.

LESSON #3: FIND SOMEONE YOU CAN BE OVERWHELMED BY-- This lesson is going to sound like one of those “find someone who looks at you the way so-and-so looks at such-and-such” memes, but captivating ga-ga devotion is a real draw.  The film uses the word “overwhelm” when it talks about measuring such love and it couldn’t be more spot-on advice.  Love has its own rules and it’s just as hard to keep as it is to earn.  

LESSON #4: FIND A GIRL WHO IS COMFORTABLE ENOUGH TO S--T AROUND YOU-- ...and if you don’t know what that big Lesson #3 is or feels like, then find someone who matches Lesson #4.  That’s a good start.