Movie Review: The Big Sick
A Rom-Com about family
The romantic comedy is one of the most formally defined film genres. Take two would-be lovers, throw in a misunderstanding, and watch for 90 minutes as they struggle towards harmony. The conflicts vary, but the rom-com has always been a sturdy vehicle to explore class differences, gender roles, and work-life balance. The Big Sick is unique because it offers not one but two major challenges for its protagonist Kumail Nanjiani to navigate in his quest for true love. First, the Uber driver and wannabe comedian must deal with the freak illness of his (possibly) ex-girlfriend. Secondly, and more broadly, Nanjiani has to deal with the expectations of Pakistani marriage culture while dating a white woman. He jokes that in America, Pakistani wedlock is described as “arranged marriage” when Pakistanis just view it as marriage. Talk about disparate belief systems!
Observations like that one and others are delivered with sharp wit because Nanjiani is a talented comedian, and because he’s telling his own story. The film was written by Nanjiani and his spouse Emily Gordon. It’s an adaptation of their own cross-cultural romance that was further disrupted by Gordon’s medical emergency. The personal angle gives the film some added poignancy, but the most impressive aspect of the narrative is how it doesn’t feel hampered by the need to represent real events. Some “real life narratives” are unable to tell the true story and make a satisfying plot progression too. The Big Sick doesn’t always flow like a typical rom-com, but it does feel cohesive. Following a fairly standard meet-cute, the romance derails when Emily discovers Kumail’s arranged marriage dealings and that she’s a secret from his conservative parents. Before they can reconcile, she falls mysteriously ill and is placed in a medically-induced coma. If this film were purely fictional, it would be an unfortunate choice to cut her from the narrative. However, it’s obvious that writers Nanjiani and Gordon found the metaphorical poignancy in the unpredictable true events.
As a result of the coma, Kumail must spend several days getting to know Emily’s parents. Take out the love interest, add in…Ray Romano and Holly Hunter? Their presence in a rom-com is disruptive and ripe for cinematic conflict. The second act details his efforts to earn their good graces. At first, he’s treated with a fair amount of suspicion; technically, he and Emily just broke up. Instead of a reconciliation with Emily herself, they become proxies for his own guilt and attempts to learn honesty. It’s not quite the confrontation Kumail needs to have with Emily (or his own family), but their interactions become a valuable experience. For one thing, it’s fascinating to watch Kumail — highly assimilated into American culture — bond with these relative strangers while he struggles for honest communication with his own traditionally-minded parents. Even more interesting, the surrogate nature of these conversations add a new level of discomfort. As much ground as Kumail gains in a few days, it’s arguably meaningless when his would-be girlfriend is asleep and his parents are unaware of his true feelings. Furthermore, while the arranged marriage “interviews” are played for laughs, Pakistani culture is not. We’re given plenty of insight into his background and sympathy for Kumail’s parents. It only serves to make his inevitable confrontation more painful. So, yes, the film is consistently funny, but never loses sight of the real problems undergirding the entire affair. Kumail’s lies, his beliefs, his actions, all have consequences for the people in his life, even the two parents he just met.
In the latter half, The Big Sick suffers from “Apatovian bloat” or whatever we call earnest comedies that go too long (James L Brooks was just as guilty of overstuffed comedies as Judd Apatow, but I digress). Despite a number of ending scenes, the film still lacks a degree of resolution on several plot threads. That’s not a criticism, per se, but the ending simultaneously feels too short and too long. I was unsure how much ambiguity the film wanted to give us and how much it wanted to imply a happier ending that it didn’t have time to develop. Other than that, it’s a smooth affair. Michael Showalter offers crisp direction and keeps his cast of comedians from veering off into improv-land. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter and phenomenal in their roles. If you enjoy romantic comedies, the film contains enough formal elements to satisfy you. If the prospect of a well-reviewed culture clash Sundance flick floats your boat, it hits those marks too. Fingers crossed that when The Big Sick goes wide, it achieves the sort of relevance that My Big Fat Greek Wedding did ten years ago. It’s just that good.