WARNING: Spoilers for The Big Sick
Well, it’s that time of the year again. Love is in the air. A time when romance is all one can think about, whether you’re actual in a relationship or not. The Valentine’s day season is filled with all kinds of romantic comedies, some better than others. Each doling out their version of “love” to the masses. Love is a difficult subject to write about; it’s a difficult story to portray on screen without being hokey and a little fake. Usually characters are pushed together because of the circumstances of the plot and are only then allowed to display this thing we call ‘chemistry.’ This method of constructing a story is the most common and efficient way of speeding through the development phase. The only downside is that this normally leaves characters in a position to be a puppet rather than a well built, three dimensional, living breathing person. Is it impossible to succeed using this method? Not at all. We’ve seen more of these movies than we could count, and there’s nothing wrong with that area of the Silver Screen.
But every once in a while, we are presented with a story that has set its roots in reality and gives us characters that pull the plot rather than be a slave to it. In 2017 we were given one such film. It gave us heart, chemistry, romance, and comedy without ever violating the most sacred rule of cinematic storytelling: “Be. Fucking. Honest.” This honest (and honestly heart-warming) film was the powerhouse The Big Sick, the true-life story of Kumail Nanjiani’s and Emily Gordon’s journey through family expectations, cultural differences, comas, and comedy to find their true feelings for one another.
I could rave about the film, the story, the characters, the acting, the direction, the sensitivity, and the prevailing comedy (which I will), but that would be missing the biggest contribution this film has offered the film-going community; Heart. Let’s dig in.
NOTE: CONTAINS SPOILERS
I mean… Not really spoilers. This is a film that can’t be spoiled. As I said earlier, this story is completely motivated by what these characters want. The only element that forces them into action is Emily falling into her coma. It pulls characters together, but after that, every moment, every beat, every step forward is motivated by our characters having a desire and finding a way to enact that desire in a way that overcomes their obstacle. This is all ‘writer speak’ that roughly translates to: “Damn. This is a really good movie.”
In broad strokes, we come to understand that Kumail is under a lot of pressure from his family to quit his embarrassing job as a stand-up comedian and marry a nice Pakistani woman. His mother forces him to meet single women at their family dinners, and it’s hilarious. A scene later we’ll see Kumail poke fun at his mom saying that she can do way better in her selection of candidates. To say it’s charming is really selling it short. Moments like these are strewn throughout the film with gay abandon, and each and every of them sneaks a smile on your face. Two minutes later you’ll catch yourself wondering why your cheeks feel tired.
One moment that made me smile, though not through charm, was Kumail and Emily’s breakup scene. Before you call me sadistic, hear me out. Emily finds Kumail’s box of headshots from his mother’s interviews. We as the audience understand what they are, but Emily is coming from a totally different angle. It’s a great scene that most movies mishandle. What made me smile was the fact that they actually have dialogue that addresses the misunderstanding. It’s not about two people who get over emotional and flighty. And just when you think Emily will understand, Kumail drops a bomb: “Here you call it Arranged Marriage. In Pakistan we just call it Marriage.” Suddenly, this cute and charming dynamic between Kumail and his family/mom cuts a little deeper. We get to see how two cultures clash on a personal level and we’re torn for a moment. That’s when Emily delivers her payload: “I can’t be the reason you can’t be with your family.” Charm gives way to depth in this film, and on a level not commonly found within many recent romantic comedies.
In the vein of depth, the acting in this film is worth more nominations than it received, thanks in equal part to the writing, directing, and actors.
I have purposefully refrained from discussing the ‘falling in love’ sequence between Emily and Kumail because words would diminish it. Watching Zoe Kazan play Emily is a treat in and of itself; the delicacy with which she handles her body language when she just listens to someone else talk is astonishing. And just when you realize we don’t get two full hours of that awesome performance, in walks Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents Beth and Terry respectively.
Holly Hunter’s caustic Beth is sure to invoke an emotional response from anyone who watches. A distressed mother that is helpless while her child is suffering, she now has to deal with the guy that just broke her daughter’s heart. You may empathize with Kumail, but Holly’s Beth is undeniable. Just one shot from those piercing eyes will leave you feeling sorry for her husband Terry, who fills the Beta role in their relationship for most of the film. Romano’s ‘awkward and nervous dad’ persona fits perfectly here, and informs his relationship with Kumail in a way that has you rooting for them the entire time.
As with any great film, the smiles have a tendency to turn to tears when we go through certain heartbreaks with Kumail and co. But this story is packaged with care. You are brought to the brink of shedding tears, and no further. The movie somehow knows just when the emotion on screen has sunk in and chooses the perfect moment to move into the next joke or charming scene. Which is saying a lot, because this movie is entirely fueled by Kumail getting the worst advice from everyone around him.
When Kumail is feeling like he’s lost everything he cared about, his standup friends are quick with a joke and far from a shoulder to lean on. His roommate even eavesdrops on Kumail’s parents kicking him out of the family and chooses to support his friend by telling him the story of when his mom kicked him out at sixteen for smoking pot. Even Romano’s advice to Kumail (while both sleeping on air mattresses in Kumail’s cramped room) is scattered and half redacted as Romano nervously bumbles through attempting to help. But it’s all very human and very real.
“Why did you bring me here if you wanted me to not have an American life? We come here, but we pretend like we’re still back there. That’s stupid.”
Kumail can’t turn to his family, Emily’s parents initially scorn him, and his friends are rarely a good source of support. When said out loud you realize just how much conflict is laced throughout this story. His journey is illustrated perfectly in one of the best moments of the film. When standing up to his parents, Kumail says to them: “Why did you bring me here if you wanted me to not have an American life? We come here, but we pretend like we’re still back there. That’s stupid.” He is facing the largest conflicts in his life completely on his own. Say what you will about character arc, but watching someone realize what’s right for them, and then weather every obstacle in the name of that understanding? THAT is reaffirming to the human spirit.
The very end of the film does reveal a small plot hole: ‘Why does Emily decide to go to New York to see Kumail at the end?’ But honestly you won’t care at that point. This is a textbook example of the journey being the destination. You will have laughed with Kumail. You will have cried with Kumail. You will have learned about love with Kumail. By no metric did Kumail’s character have any reason to fight for what he cared about when the world stood against him, but he stayed true to himself. That’s the heart of The Big Sick. It’s the story of being true to yourself, and along the way you just happen to fall in love.