Film Review: ‘The Big Sick’ is a robust rom-com, but not much else
As a film, “The Big Sick” is an unconventional addition to a long tradition of romantic comedies with memorable protagonists that include the likes of “When Harry Met Sally,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Notting Hill.” Kumail Nanjiani stars as Kumail, a character based on his early life as a standup comic who falls in love with psychology graduate student and quintessential girl next door, Emily, a somewhat underutilized Zoe Kazan, who is based on Nanjiani’s wife in real life, Emily Gordon. He battles family expectations, career mishaps and a cultural misunderstanding — as well as the fact that Emily falls into a coma halfway through the film.
It’s here that the biggest flaw in “The Big Sick” becomes apparent. I would describe Emily as an “every girl” because that is, in essence, how she is portrayed. For a film that calls itself a romantic comedy, one half of the couple is disproportionately underwhelming. The film spends 40 minutes of its two hour run time intermittently checking in on the character as one of the many objects orbiting Kumail’s life. She is funny, interesting and pretty — but then again, so is every other romantic comedy heroine. It’s to Kazan’s credit that a certain amount of wry nervousness is injected into her character, but spending the majority of the second half of a film lying comatose would be too large of an obstacle for any character actor to overcome.
But Emily’s leave of absence from the film brings an unexpected gift in the form of her parents — Holly Hunter and Ray Romano give stunning performances as Beth and Terry. Perhaps the most riveting moment in the film is a fight between the two. The air is charged with what is unspoken, and Beth circles Terry for a moment like a predator before letting out a pained whimper and dashing away to her daughter. Kumail watches the fight with the air that such an encounter is a rare sight in his family’s household.
Next to Beth and Terry, Kumail’s parents, played by Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher, are almost painfully one note. They are mostly comedic fodder, with none of the depth that is given to Emily’s parents. They are also the source of a large conflict between Kumail and Emily, seeming to exist only to parade a large selection of eligible Pakistani women in front of Kumail, deliver wry comments about the evils of American fast food culture and towards the end of the film, deliver what even the film seems to consider the typical immigrant parent monologue about their sacrifice for their children.
Let’s not avoid the elephant in the room. Kumail is not Billy Crystal, Colin Firth or Hugh Grant. He’s introduced as a Pakistani-American who immigrated to the U.S. after high school. This movie is not “A Movie About Race,” but it is an American film that contains a South Asian man as its main lead. The comments are not subtle. Viewers are introduced to Kumail with a montage of life in Pakistan, overlaid with audio from a set in Kumail’s standup, where he ironically describes Pakistan as a place very similar to America. Kumail’s one-man-show barrages his audience with seemingly irrelevant and somewhat dull facts about Pakistan. He is clearly a man dealing with his identity as an Pakistani-American. That is the first established trait of this character.
But the people who seem to know and love him the most don’t understand this dilemma, nor how this might lead to Kumail dealing with his internal struggles by lying. He lies to his family about studying for the LSAT and waiting patiently for the right Pakistani girl, and he lies to Emily about their relationship and his resignation to an arranged marriage. The lies are not one-sided. After his one man show, Emily and his friends all tell him through their gritted teeth that they enjoyed his performance and the many facts about Pakistan.
The source of Kumail’s lying is never completely addressed or explained between these characters. Kumail ultimately tells the truth that he is dating Emily, a white woman, to his parents, and that he will continue pursuing stand-up as a career. In an earlier scene, Kumail and Emily effectively break up because she discovers his box of photographs of potential arranged marriage candidates and realizes that there is no future to their relationship. But the essential question is never asked between these characters: why does he lie, and how does he stop lying?
Being a member of an ethnic minority in America dealing with the cultural clash between two or even more identities means that one must constantly switch between a series of selves. Here is the Kumail who is Emily’s boyfriend, here is the Kumail whose only friends seem to be white standup comics and here is the Kumail who eats dinner with his parents every week and pretends to pray before dinnertime in the garage.
It is only when Kumail meets Emily’s parents that Kumail halts his constant shuffling between identities. It is this dynamic that becomes the redeeming factor of this film. Kumail bonds with Beth as she relates how her conservative, military family in North Carolina despised Terry for his New Yorker, civilian roots. Emily’s family and their transparency to each other are the foil to Kumail’s. Kumail hides everything from the fact that the girl coming to dinner is not a coincidence to the fact that he is no longer certain that he believes in Allah from his parents. Since Kunail’s relationship with Beth and Terry initially has little emotional weight, there is little to be lost if he is open and honest with them. It is to their credit that we, as viewers, spend the majority of the film with a Kumail who becomes increasingly honest with himself and with the people around him.
It has to be acknowledged that while the contrast between Emily’s family and Kumail’s family is obvious, it contains a context that the film is ultimately unable to approach. The conversation towards the end of the film, where Kumail is finally honest with his parents, is almost too painful to watch because of the weight of truth for Kumail and his parents. While Emily is honest with her parents about her troubles with her boyfriend, Kumail is hiding his hopes, his dreams, his love and even his faith. There is no way for him to repay his parents for their sacrifice, and to disrespect that even more by denying them their wishes is a heartbreaking notion that Kumail makes clear when he abruptly interrupts their monologue. This was a development I wish had occurred sooner in the film and explored with as much meaningful depth as Kumail’s developing relationship with Beth and Terry.
“The Big Sick” is ultimately a thoughtful and honest film that approaches a number of themes but does not ultimately become The Movie about the big, overarching ideas it intersects. It is, instead, dedicated first and foremost to creating a romantic comedy loosely based on Nanjiani’s relationship with his wife. The film doesn’t pretend to be anything more than entertaining, and for a movie that is ultimately about a man and his girlfriend in a coma, it accomplishes a lot to be a funny and introspective two hours of film.