Romantic Comedy “The Big Sick” Delights and Devastates

In The Big Sick, ideas about cultural identity and family are united with a comedic style reliant on awkwardness and sarcasm, all in service of a brilliant romantic comedy plot.  Kumail and Emily are growing into their new relationship, but a serious snag slams on the breaks.  Then, a sudden illness befalls Emily and Kumail is forced into reconsidering everything that he just let go and the reasons why.  The comedy and the characters in The Big Sick are great, but the way that the themes arise from this subject matter are far more poignant and impressive, resulting in one of the best romantic comedies of recent memory and strongest films in all of 2017.

The romantic comedy is a maligned genre, and it probably deserves to be.  Rom-coms are so often cliché and shallow pieces of romantic escapism that the tropes of the genre are known to even the most casual of film-goers.  But, it is crucial to understand that the genre itself is not predisposed towards having these problems; they are merely the result of sloppy and lazy filmmaking.  Misunderstanding, lying, and other relationship “difficulties” are cast as irredeemable problems, and then trivially redeemed to close out the third act.  The Big Sick avoids these pitfalls by structuring its major conflict around a situation that is universal:  what if the person you’re falling for doesn’t see a serious future with you because of some hidden incompatibility?

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Kumail and Emily:  into each other even in the cold.

The two leads in The Big Sick are Kumail and Emily.  Here, Emily is played by the astounding Zoe Kazan, but the story is based on the real-life relationship of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, who both wrote the screenplay for the film.  Kumail plays himself as an aspiring stand-up comedian, and struggles to understand exactly what he is going to do with his future, what he believes, and how he feels about his own culture and his family’s insistence that he obey their wishes.  Emily is a coquettish rogue, full of sarcastic wit and quick to make fun of Kumail’s favorite movies.  Her relationship with Kumail grows despite her best wishes –  they’re simply incredibly compatible . . . as far as she knows.

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The Big Sick gets the meet-cute and building of this relationship quickly – there’s much more it has to get through.

The plot grows towards this conflict with many standard features of the rom-com.  There’s the meet-cute that occurs when Emily heckles Kumail at his stand-up set, the development of their relationship despite the professed wishes of Emily to “not be dating right now”, and the establishment of the basic conflict:  Kumail will have to agree to an arranged marriage to a Pakistani woman, or else he is out of the family.  It’s made very clear:  if he were to marry Emily, or even reveal the relationship to his parents, it would cost him his family.  The falling out between the two happens when Emily discovers this fact, and it is much sooner than the standard formula (it basically closes the first act).  From there, we get the curveball from which the film draws its name:  Emily gets sick, and Kumail is the one responsible for contacting her parents after she is put into a medically-induced coma.

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Emily’s parents, death-staring down Kumail at the hospital.

And this is where the magnificent supporting cast really shows its teeth.  The families are both fantastic in The Big Sick.  Emily’s parents are played by Ray Ramano and Holly Hunter, whereas Kumail’s parent are played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff and his brother by Adeel Akhtar.  Both sets of families are crucial to the plot, and without the pathos generated by the agonized fear of Emily’s parents or the traditionalism from Kumail’s, this film is far worse.  These aspects are communicated through simple but brilliant character traits – Emily’s father writes down every bit of medical nomenclature so he can look it up later, and Kumail’s mother’s arranged set-ups for Kumail are brazen and blatant.  At the comedy club where Kumail cuts his teeth there are a number of other sardonic comics breaking each other’s balls all the time, led by Bo Burnham as CJ and Aidy Bryant as Mary.  Overall, the supporting characters in The Big Sick are just as powerful as the two leads.

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Kumail’s brother and sister-in-law, very opinionated about how Kumail should, “Do that Saturday Night Live show”.

The comedic voice of The Big Sick is obviously fueled by Kumail’s stand-up career.  Barbs are exchanged in the green room of the comedy club, there are many elements involving hecklers, and the big goal that Kumail focuses on is impressing an organizer of a high-profile comedy festival.  But off the stage, the film mostly treads in comedy of the awkward, with a heavy use of sarcasm.  This is ideal material to mine when dealing with the beginning of a relationship and meeting your partner’s parents, but it’s ramped up considerably with the additional stress of the hospital visit, cultural differences between Kumail and Emily’s parents, and the general fact that the two aren’t even together anymore.  This is the kind of comedy that appeals to me, so I found myself chuckling out loud throughout the film at the strangeness of it all, but I would wager that such a sardonic style will simply not be to some people’s tastes.

But even if the comedy doesn’t quite connect, one has to appreciate the deft handling of some poignant themes.  On the surface, The Big Sick is about romance, but there is much more boiling under the surface.   There’s an underlying idea about planning for one’s future, both professionally and romantically, and wondering how the person you love fits in with that plan.  Because spoiler alert (for life, not the movie):  sometimes all of these things don’t line up perfectly and you have to make a choice.

The film also treads into some serious philosophical topics involving cultural identity and religious uncertainty.  Kumail struggles with Islam and Allah, unsure of what he believes while being certain that his parent’s expectations are still important to him.  And as a corollary, there are questions about how to best show appreciation for the sacrifices that your parents made for you:  is it to acquiesce to their wishes for you, or to explore the freedoms that you were afforded by those sacrifices?  These are not easy questions, and The Big Sick treats them with the respect they deserve while still being uproariously funny.

There’s also a wonderful sense of the character growth that accompanies experiencing cultures different from your own.  It’s awesome how Kumail learns to handle his family from something Emily’s mom said – a hick from North Carolina.

At the halfway point of 2017, The Big Sick feels like an easy inclusion in the discussion of the year’s best films.  Not just funniest – best.  Its story is novel despite the dressings of its genre, the characters are relateable and realistic, and the comedic voice is bested only by the sophistication of the thematic material and how naturally it arises from the plot.  Don’t punt on your chance to see The Big Sick just because it is a romantic comedy; it is so much more than that.

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