Love, Loss, and Love in “The Big Sick”

(Courtesy of Lionsgate)

“The Big Sick” is the deserving winner of my Film of the Summer award. A story built from Kumail Nanjiani’s true life story that bridges the binary between truth and fiction, the film gives the romantic comedy genre a brand-new go.

The first hour or so consists of the gushy, awkward humor for which you would normally turn to a Jennifer Aniston movie on Netflix. Nanjiani (whose character goes by the same name) meets a graduate student named Emily (Zoe Kazan) at a bar. They push past their initial commitment to just hook up into a full blown relationship, and Nanjiani almost loses Emily because of it. The sentimentality goes so far as to include a Love Actually-esque montage. At one point while watching it, I blurted out in vain, “That’s what I want my romantic life to be like!”

Then comes the twist, foreshadowed by the movie’s title, but no less jolting: after Emily realizes Kumail hasn’t told his family about her and the pair breaking up, Emily gets a flu that leaves her with a life-threatening infection in the ICU. Called in by one of Emily’s friends who can’t stay with her in the hospital anymore, Kumail is left to sign a form allowing for Emily to be put in a medically-induced coma.

“But wait, aren’t there SNL comedians in this movie,” you might ask? Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who exhibit strength in their parental vulnerability) come into town to care for her, and though they are initially ice-cold to Kumail (Emily told them everything – something I could relate with), Kumail eventually realizes how big of a mistake he made in keeping his love for Emily, and now her family, a secret. But he makes his realization while Emily is asleep.

Kumail lives two lives he works hard to keep separate. By day, he is a momma’s boy, son of Pakistani immigrants who only want their children to be good Muslims and comply with an arranged marriage to a Pakistani woman (and become a doctor, but they’ll look past that). But by night, he’s a budding comedian, a regular at a Chicago club along with his fellow comedian-friends (real-life jokesters Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, and Kurt Braunohler) who are all vying to make it big.

His main source of material is his own cultural background, filling his scenes with sharp and poignant jokes and slipping in some terrorism-related comedy like he’s trying to reach that punchline before anybody else. Oh, and he dates American women, keeping in his room a collection of the rejected headshots of the Pakistani suitors his mom chooses for him. He lives with the entrenched belief that should his American and Pakistani lives cross, he would have to lose one. And he nearly loses both.

Nanjiani teamed up with his real-life wife, Emily Gordon, who did in fact become hospitalized four months after they met, to write the movie. To me, the pacing of the film was its key to success: providing for that slow lead-in on the quality of Kumail and Emily’s relationship gave the audience a desire to see the pair work out, but with Emily bedridden and literally silenced halfway through, the focus shifts onto Kumail entirely. Influenced by Emily’s parents, as well as his own emotional reactions to seeing Emily in a hospital, he discovers his deep love for her. The timing also allowed the comedy and the tragedy to coexist without seeming forced or hard to follow. It really was a story of love formed, interrupted, and found again.

Nanjiani and Kazan’s chemistry is also undeniable, and yet different from that in most rom-com couples: it’s imperfect, sometimes uneven but never clichéd, and never forced. Kazan even looks pretty similar to real-wife Gordon, a sign of good casting, though I do feel like I’ve seen Kazan in very similar ‘quirky girl gets heartbroken by a clueless guy’ roles many times before. That by no means means she’s not impressively effective in just that character; quite the opposite is true here.

“The Big Sick” is a film to watch in many contexts, as it is placed within many contexts. Relevant in every issue from illness to family dysfunction to Islamophobia, it’s a resounding big hit.

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