'The Big Sick' Resurrects Romantic Comedy.
When was the last time you saw a really great romantic comedy? Chances are it was the early 90s and either Meg Ryan or Tom Hanks were starring in it. Since 13-year-old boys started spending all their allowance at the movie theater—tipping the box office scales with their collective buying power, romantic comedies have become urban legends. Now it’s beginning to feel like moviegoers have a better chance of spotting Sasquatch than being able to see a well made, humorous and emotionally intelligent love story on screen. Lucky for those of us who still crave that highfalutin', perception-warping, not-based-in-reality, creator-of-false-hope, feel good ‘chick flick’ comes with its own box of tissues; The Big Sick has arrived! I’m totally kidding with that last sentence. On the contrary, The Big Sick is the polar opposite of a saccharine formulaic romantic comedy. Produced by Judd Apatow, the film is both refreshingly honest and topical. Thematically, it explores race, health, family dynamics, and the complexities of falling in love.
Because truth is always stranger than fiction, The Big Sick is based on the real love story of married co-writers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. Nanjiani is best known for his character Denish on the HBO series Silicon Valley. Gordon left a career as a psychotherapist to become a comedy writer for The Jerrod Carmichael Show, (Fresh Air).
“Kumail grew up in Pakistan. He came to the U.S. to attend college and stayed. In the film which is set in Chicago, as he and Emily begin seeing each other and falling in love, his parents who are also in Chicago, are still expecting that he will enter into a traditional arranged marriage. Rather than hurt his parents and risk being cut off from his family, he keeps secret his relationship with Emily. Meanwhile, Emily is diagnosed with a life-threatening infection that requires that she be put in a medically-induced comma. Emily’s parents and Kumail spend time together at the hospital sizing each other up as they worry about Emily,” (Fresh Air).
The script seems intentionally unpolished, which I happened to appreciate. The dialogue is a little clumsy at times and awkward—like falling in love tends to be. But above all, it is delightfully funny. It’s about as close to a realistic happy ending as anyone could hope for. No one ever achieved anything worth having without derailing challenges, and the road to Gordon and Nanjiani’s marriage was no exception.
Nanjiani stars as himself along side an extraordinary cast, which includes Zoe Kazan as Emily, and Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents. The performances are sincere and vulnerable but grounded in humor. Holly Hunter stands out for her thoughtfully quirky and charismatic interpretation of the ‘protective mother.’ All of the actors manage to find those moments of comedy that often organically break the tension one experiences in life and death situations. They do this without deemphasizing the severity of the overarching circumstances. When asked about taking artistic license with the medical difficulties Emily faced, Nanjiani said,
“Generally, comedy is a person in trouble. It’s a person dealing with a situation that they’re ill-equipped to handle and we knew that the real life event, no matter how traumatic, was basically us, me and her parents, dealing with an event that we weren’t equipped to handle... So we knew that the general construction of it could be comedic we just had to figure out specifically how we could make it a comedy without loosing the reality level of a very young woman being very ill.”
One of the things I really love about the movie is the insider look the audience gets into Pakistani culture. Through comedy, Kumail breaks down a rich history of his people. A major issue Kumail must grapple with revolves around his willingness to participate in the pursuit of an arranged marriage, which is customary in his culture. His avoidance of facing his fears of being outcast by his family if he doesn’t participate verses not being able to marry for love puts him in an impossible predicament—one he can’t see his way out of without hurting those he loves.
“Honestly, at the time, I couldn’t imagine a world where I did have an arranged marriage, and I couldn’t imagine a world where I didn’t have an arranged marriage,” Nanjiani tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.
Then Emily’s sickness puts everything into perspective forcing him to take action. The truth is, most people don’t change because they want to, they change because they have to, and many times the catalyst for that change is tragedy.
“It’s specially tough for immigrant families I think, because a lot of immigrant families will come here and the parents sort of take the hit—they lose their jobs to start over—they get jobs that are much worse than the jobs they had—they sort of sacrifice their own lives to give their children better lives and then a lot of times their children don’t choose the lives that the parents want for them…Its very tricky because I understand why they wanted me to marry someone within the culture because they’re here and they want to hold on to their identity, and they want to hold on to their culture and one of the most important ways to do it is to sort of pass it on to your kids...I understand, you know, it’s difficult to hold on to your identity in a land where your identity is not valued.” (Nanjiani- Fresh Air)
There’s a reason why everyone is raving about this film. It provides a much-needed return to substantive story telling about love and relationships.