I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of romantic comedies
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
How many ways can a movie be spoiled by its own mere existence so that it’s ruined before you even see it? We now know that it’s more than the many ways in which The Big Sick spoils itself, because its multiply-foregone conclusion does not hinder its amusements, lessen its drama, or take away from its big, big, all-enrapturing emotion. It’s kind of amazing.
The Big Sick is the basically-true, just-a-little-bit-fictionalized story of the relationship between actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani (Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Goosebumps) and writer and producer Emily V. Gordon, who have been married since 2007. They wrote the script together; Michael Showalter directs (he and Nanjiani have worked together before). So we may presume that onscreen Kumail, who plays himself*, and onscreen Emily (played by Zoe Kazan: Our Brand Is Crisis, In Your Eyes) will end up together. That’s pretty much standard for romantic comedies anyway, that the central couple ends up together, so it’s probably not that big a deal. But the title of the film alludes to the fact that Emily is going to get really ill mid-story — if you thought that The Big Sick was a sorta strange name for a romantic comedy, well, it is — and we also know that she is going to survive that, obviously. This isn’t going to be a sentimental tear-jerker about heartbreak sailing in on the wings of untimely death.
I wouldn’t even call The Big Sick a romantic comedy. Oh, for sure there are some big laughs here, but none of them have anything to do with the typical contrived rom-com shenanigans we’re used to (and that many of us are tired of, so maybe we could call this a romantic comedy for people who hate romantic comedies). There certainly are some astute observations on dating and some digs at the expectations and etiquette of getting to know someone new, as well as a few welcome knocks at rom-com clichés (such as the guy’s inescapably inappropriate declaration of his feelings that completely ignores hers). But by far most of the humor comes from Kumail’s banter with his fellow stand-up comics about anything and everything, and from the self-deprecation Kumail piles on himself, both onscreen Kumail lamenting his confusion in the moment and offscreen writer Nanjiani looking back at his slightly younger self with chagrin.
An immigrant from Pakistan in Chicago — not too far off Nanjiani’s own past; he emigrated from Karachi to New Jersey at age 18 — Kumail cannot admit to his parents that he is not following their Muslim faith, and that he is not in the least bit interested in the arranged marriage that his mother, Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), keeps trying to set up for him by parading eligible young women before him at their regular family dinners. Kumail’s double life — modern free-spirit on his own versus the traditional good son he pretends to be for his parents — is played with as much poignancy as humor, and The Big Sick’s romance is inextricably caught up in Kumail’s experience as someone stuck between two worlds. It’s when Emily inevitably discovers that he has been hiding the other half of his life from her that their romance hits the skids.
And then she gets sick.
And then the movie takes a turn into what we might call a rom-com between Kumail and his prospective, hoped-for in-laws, Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Manglehorn) and Terry (Ray Romano: Ice Age: Collision Course, Funny People). He meets them for the first time over her hospital bed, where she is in a medically induced coma to help her body fight a rampaging infection, so he is left to deal with them on his own. Except Emily had already told him what a shit he was to her, and that she wanted nothing more to do with him, and so they are not well disposed to him. The slow accommodation the three of them come to — united, at least, by concern for Emily — is where the real pleasure of The Big Sick lies. It is one of the smartest, wisest depictions of something that few movies about romance do well: acknowledge that even intimate relationships have a lot more people involved in them than merely the two lovers. The Big Sick gets at how big marriage and family really are.
Unlike so many studio movies that seek to blend comedy and drama, silliness and sentiment, The Big Sick actually pulls it off, never wavers in maintaining just the right tone to make us laugh and cry at the same time. This movie is sometimes literally painfully funny. (No spoilers, but there’s a scene at a fast-food drive-thru that had me guffawing until I burst into tears, it’s so perfectly pitched as Kumail’s seething mess of very mixed emotions.) Terry says, when talking about the anxiety of watching his daughter struggling to survive her medical crisis, that “loving somebody this much sucks.” That glorious contradiction is pretty much The Big Sick in a nutshell, and it is a helluva achievement to have captured that emotional ride so well.
*There are numerous examples of actors playing caricatured and/or outrageous versions of themselves in movies, like John Malkovich in the surreal Being John Malkovich and the entire cast in the apocalyptic comedy This Is the End. And there are countless examples of celebrities cameoing as themselves onscreen. But we have to go back 62 years to find another example of an actor playing a fairly realistic version of himself in a movie telling his own story. That’s when US army veteran turned actor Audie Murphy played himself in the 1955 autobiographical film To Hell and Back, based on his experiences during World War II.