‘The Big Sick’ and a Comatose Genre
Directed by: Michael Showalter
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoey Kazan, Ray Romano, and Holly Hunter
The Big Sick is based on the real life romance between Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) and therapist turned writer, Emily V. Gordon (played by Zoey Kazan). According to the movie, they met during Kumail’s early years when Emily heckled him during one of his regular sets at a local Chicago comedy club. This sets off a whirlwind quirky romance full of dorky chemistry that implodes when Emily learns about Kumail’s family’s plans for him. Kumail comes from a strict Muslim family that wants to arrange his marriage. So, when not telling jokes or going out with Emily, Kumail is being set up by his mother with possible wives in situations that are more like job interviews than first dates. Kumail is clearly not into it and is only trying to placate his mother, but that excuse only goes so far with Emily, who also learns that his parents don’t even know about their getting-serious relationship. Soon after a teary breakup, Emily gets sick with a mysterious illness and put into a medically induced coma to keep her stabilized.
Ironically, the romantic comedy genre has long been in a coma in desperate need of resuscitation. There are signs of life here and there (Obvious Child, for instance), but mostly it just lies in the bed and barely breathes. It is plagued with unoriginal stories about women with cool stressful job waiting for their homely soulmate to help them relax a little. Or the geeky guy drooling over someone so far out of his league that he is blind to the better girl for him, who is just as beautiful but is wearing glasses so we are to believe she sucks. It’s like Disney princess love story expectations but for adults mixed with the non-sex scenes from porn. They often forget to be either romantic or funny, which should completely disqualify them from being a romantic comedy, but The Big Sick avoids most of these downfalls by doing something truly unexpected: removing the love interest from the movie completely.
It is not long into the movie when Emily enters her coma, forcing Kumail into a position where he cannot win her back. Caring for her, he is still by her side, but now he is forced to contend with her parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, trying to win her back through them. Hunter is pretty much great in everything she has ever done, and Romano, whose acting ability has barely been tested beyond sitcom standards, is able to hold his own. The way they work through their stress, which is almost like working through grief, is very compelling. Hunter is often nose deep in books and Google searches double checking the work of the trained doctors. Her mile a minute, often frantic disposition has never felt more at home than in these dramatic moments. Meanwhile, Romano is feeding off her stress and trying desperately to calm her down. He is trying to keep a collective cool and seems to mistake Kumail’s quiet sadness and wry sense of humor in the face of depression as a similar wavelength.
For a romantic comedy, that is all incredibly intense. Way more intense than I was expecting. The doctors have no idea what is wrong, and the trio are each trying to keep their own composure because when one of them breaks, the other two need to be the support system. This gives them ample opportunity to have heart-to-heart talks, where Kumail talks to Emily’s parents about how they met, fell in love, stay in love, and what they do when they fail at love. It is the kind of dialog that when spoken to a love interest who is also the topic of it sounds cheesy and fake, like an insincere Hallmark card. As if you feelings were written by someone else. Instead, those similar words are turned into stories that are told about that person. Romano tells his stories about Hunter. Hunter tells her stories about Romano, and Kumail is processing it all not just through his would-be relationship with Emily but his connection to his family as well. This is where the movie gets to be both romantic and funny.
Every 2 or 3 years, there is a romantic comedy worth recommending. I already mentioned Obvious Child. Silver Linings Playbook probably counts. Shaun of the Dead is a big one, but they needed zombies to get your attention. There are so many genres that people do not take seriously enough because they are (or at least were) cheap and easy to assemble and throw to the audience like table scraps to a dog. Those are the genres that are ripe to come out swinging, and The Big Sick does exactly that. It is the kind of mind-blowing example of a genre that makes you wonder why they just haven’t been making them like this all along.