Director: Michael Showalter
Writers: Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter, Adeel Akhtar, Anupam Kher
Genre: Romantic Comedy, Drama
Comedy is what happens to you; tragedy is what you do to yourself. The Big Sick contains plenty of both. If reviewers got to make up genres on the fly I would call it a romantic melodrama. The Big Sick is a fictionalized account of how Kumail Nanjiani got together with his wife Emily Gordon. Just after Emily (Zoe Kazan) breaks up with Kumail (Nanjiani playing himself) because he can’t introduce a white girlfriend to his parents, she is hospitalized and he signs the consent form to put her in a medically induced coma.
Emily’s parents Beth and Terry arrive to take care of their daughter (Hunter and Romano). The three of them alternately support and reject each other as they survive the held-breath grief of a loved one in Intensive Care. Observing Beth and Terry’s marriage and confronting the possibility of Emily’s death drives Kumail to integrate the Pakistani and American parts of his life and reach out for what he wants.
Language/Crude Humor: The F-word is used quite a bit.
Sexual Content: A couple is seen kissing before the movie cuts to them having had sex.
Drug/Alcohol Use: A character is described as using cocaine, other illegal drugs are mentioned.
Positive Content: Characters are forgiven for serious sins, and all main characters are seeking committed relationships.
The Big Sick is often funny, and funny in a variety of moods: soft and sweet, ugly and sharp, silent and despairing. But the purpose of the movie is not laughter or emotions. Its end point is not an emotion but an attitude: slender, tightly-wound fierce hope. Hope for the future in the face of death, and hope for love between human beings.
I’ll talk about why it’s very good, and then I’ll talk about why it’s not great.
The Big Sick is good because it really likes people, and it takes all aspects of them seriously, and it lets them make mistakes, and then it forces them to deal with what they’ve done. It doesn’t let any character, not even the Pakistani parents trying to arrange Kumail’s marriage, slide into caricature or present a single aspect to the audience.
Most romantic comedies have no idea what forgiveness is like or what it costs, even though their plots may involve lots of breaking up and making up. The Big Sick does. People can change; we can heal broken relationships; but it involves dedication and a complete remodelling of the individual. Kumail becomes a real partner for Emily only after being honest with his parents, being honest with Emily’s parents, and being honest with himself about what he wants.
If there were a spiritual dimension, we would call this process of honesty “repentance.” In a thoroughly atheistic movie like this, it simply gives the romance a pleasing weight and substance. The protagonists in most romantic comedies are like hummingbirds, able to move in any direction at any moment. The Big Sick has characters like container ships: slow to change direction, incredibly dangerous if they collide, and vital to human society. That was a weird but useful metaphor for a weird but useful movie.
But this movie does have flaws: one unpleasant and one just boring. The unpleasant part is the world of stand-up comedy that surrounds Kumail, including people he considers friends. I hope they aren’t based on real people, because these characters are mean and unsympathetic. They make the whole world of stand-up comedy look like a race of emotional vampires who fake humanity to feed off the nervous release of audiences. Sometimes movies need to have unpleasant things in them. But these friends don’t contribute anything to the movie: they don’t represent something Kumail embraces or leaves behind, they don’t comment on his choices or help him see himself differently.
They could be considered a foil for the dysfunctional but loving families of both Kumail and Emily, but Kumail heads to New York with the two worst of these friends – so there’s no thematic movement away from them. Everything else in the movie suggests that it knows what real love is, and yet these nasty warped people just coast through the movie without being changed or re-described. None of the movie’s themes seem to apply to them. It’s jarring.
The boring flaw is the way the movies resolves the conflict between Kumail’s Pakistani and American culture, including a sub-conflict between Islam and American consumer secularism. The movie resolves this by not resolving it. Indefinitely postponing an inconvenient clash between creeds is an old Hollywood trick, but the rest of the movie is so committed to treating Kumail’s parents as real people that it falls a bit flat.
At the dramatic climax of the movie, Kumail admits to his parents that he hasn’t prayed for years. And when they ask him if he believes in Allah, he says something like: “I don’t know what I believe. But I need to work it out on my own.” His attempt to not-reject his family’s culture shows that he has already rejected it. What could be more upwardly mobile New York than needing to figure out your life on your own?
Kumail’s father (played with fierce dignity by Anupam Kher) gets a lovely speech in response that asks Kumail what he believes the American Dream really is; and argues that it’s not about doing whatever you want. But the movie doesn’t really advance an alternate position. Kumail still goes to Emily’s bedside because he wants to, he still moves to New York because he wants to, and he reconciles with his family because he wants to.
The movie could have taken a bigger risk and suggested that both family and romantic love are things that we encounter and process, rather than things we choose and create. But that would have meant pushing back against the most American creed of all: my will is the arbiter of reality.
I like this movie and I think you will too. But I can easily imagine a stranger version of it that I could have loved.
+ Unflinching portrayal of emotional cowardice + Compassion for every character + Does not give its characters easy answers + Funny without being unserious
- Some unpleasant and unnecessary minor characters - A boringly secular approach to religion and culture
The Bottom Line
This movie is not great, but it is very good. It takes a warm but serious approach to topics that romantic comedies often treat too lightly, such as illness, failure, and forgiveness. Please go see it.