The Big Sick (2017, Dir. Michael Showalter):
“Love isn’t easy. That’s why they call it love,” says Ray Romano in the new romantic comedy The Big Sick, and the line could serve as a mission statement for every movie in the genre. If ever the course of true love ran smooth, we wouldn’t have much of a story, would we? The trick is to manufacture enough clever twists and obstacles to separate our lovers until the final curtain, but as the rom-com genre has aged, it’s gotten progressively more ridiculous in its premises. Audiences have endured some doozies lately: How about Jason Bateman sneak-impregnating Jennifer Aniston in The Switch? Ashton Kutcher as a suburban dad who turns out to be an international assassin in Killers? Dane Cook cursed by a goth girl to drive away every woman he sleeps with in Good Luck Chuck? Even Tommy Wiseau would scoff at these contrivances.
The Big Sick pulls out one of the more popular clichés: a burgeoning romance halted by a coma. (See also While You Were Sleeping with Sandra Bullock, and If I Stay with Chloë Grace Moretz, for starters.) To be more specific, it’s about a Pakistani-American comedian and reluctant Muslim named Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) who falls for a Caucasian grad student named Emily (Zoe Kazan). Just as their relationship reaches a crossroads — she’s got commitment issues, he can’t bring himself to tell his very traditional family that he has a white girlfriend — Emily falls into a coma. You would assume this is a typical unbelievable rom-com set-up, except for the fact that this happened in real life, and the film is actually Kumail and his co-writer/partner Emily V. Gordon’s riff on the story of their relationship.
The Big Sick deviates from the standard template in other ways too. It’s a romance in which the most romantic moment is a woman heckling a comedian (or at least, he interprets her actions as heckling). It’s a comedy in which the jokes are about as jolly as a doctor drawing blood from a patient, and the protagonist blows his chance to make the big time by not being funny at all. It’s a drama in which the most dramatic moment is presented with cue cards. If this all sounds a bit like a Judd Apatow film to you, you’d be correct — Apatow’s company produced this movie. Tonally, however, The Big Sick is its own thing. Existential crises and middle-class neuroses are never far from the surface in Apatow’s work; even his funniest movies (The 40-year Old Virgin, Knocked Up) contain an overlong mope or two. Nanjiani and Gordon, along with director Michael Showalter, hew to a different tack in this movie: they may flirt with serious themes, but they’re also intent on honoring the sweetness of the genre.
Once you get past the basic premise, The Big Sick focuses on character interplay rather than unpredictable plot turns. Its obvious hook and claim to originality is having a male Pakistani-American as the lead, but thanks to Gordon’s involvement in the script, it’s also the rare rom-com that gives both male and female perspectives equal time. Nanjiani is in every scene, yet the screenplay makes sure we’re not shuttered inside his head. His Kumail might be a fairly decent guy, but he’s no saint, and the film continually cuts him down to normal, flawed proportions. While we can empathize with his desire to free himself from his controlling parents, we’re also shown the semi-selfishness of that desire, as well. (To further confuse our sympathies, the Pakistani dates his parents parade before him as arranged marriage candidates all turn out to be intelligent, lively, and very much their own women.) Likewise, Kazan’s Emily might be a fetching partner, but she has her own issues to work through. “You’re a therapist!” Kumail says, bewildered, when she gets especially rage-y during a spat. “I’m expressing myself!” she yells back. The tension of their interracial romance might sound like soap opera — “White girl? It’s such a cliché,” Kumail’s more dutiful brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) jibes — but the movie slow-plays the cultural comedy. Just like life, turning points, squabbles and resolutions arrive in their own time.
The heart of the movie finds Kumail sequestered with Emily’s parents while Emily lies comatose, allowing Romano and Holly Hunter to strut their stuff. Visually and temperamentally, they make for a fine comic pairing: he’s a hulking, hangdog New Yorker, she’s a raw Southern firecracker. Their growing friendship with Kumail is a sly accumulation of slow-burns ranging from the plain uncomfortable (“So, uh… 9-11…” Romano says as a conversation opener) to explosive (Hunter comes to Kumail’s defense when a heckler directs an ISIS joke his way). While Kumail’s family is painted in broader strokes, they all receive affectionate portrayals, especially Zenobia Shroff as Kumail’s relentlessly chipper mother, shepherding prospective girlfriends into the house with the smoothness of a stage manager when she’s not putting her son down with a smile and a sigh: “All the time with the comedy…” The Big Sick continually acknowledges the sometimes-irreconcilable divide between loyalty and freedom, between what tradition requires and what the heart wants. Kumail’s pop culture reference points may all be Western, like the way he wears his hair in his high school yearbook photo like Hugh Grant, or when he waxes poetic about Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, but it doesn’t prevent him from wanting to educate folks about his home country in a solo performance act. It also doesn’t make it any easier for him when he turns down a would-be Pakistani wife, who tells him (quite rightly) that he doesn’t deserve her. In the end, no one is proved to be completely right or wrong — it’s all about moving forward and trying to do the right thing, which is about as humane a message as you’ll find in a rom-com these days.
In its embrace of multiculturalism, The Big Sick belongs to the here and now, and fittingly enough for a millennial romance, the act of even getting together with someone seems like a minor miracle. “I’m not dating right now. I have a lot on my plate,” insists Emily at the outset, and it’s more than a touch ironic that she and Kumail are ultimately drawn together through the magic of Uber, of all things (he’s a driver, she’s a frequent client). Like a lot of millennial comedies, the story tends to drift, and a whole subplot involving Kumail’s comedian buddies doesn’t provide much beyond a rash of “Your act is so bad…” jokes. Still, the film’s easygoing rhythms are a perfect fit for the story, as delayed gratification only makes our protagonists’ victories that much sweeter. Just as one can’t rush back from a coma, one can’t hurry love, and Kumail’s mother ends up providing the most sage advice in the film: “There’s not just going to be a magic spark. You have to work at it.” Rom-coms thrive on wish fulfillment; The Big Sick is a pleasant reminder that wish fulfillment is a whole lot more satisfying when it’s earned. It’s the kind of movie that’s so effective at casting its spell that when the nearly unbelievable ending arrives, you find yourself rolling with it. After all, if one can’t find happiness in a rom-com, where can one find it?