the big sick poster

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Director: Michael Showalter

Genre: Romance, Comedy 

Year: 2017

At the risk at sounding extreme, the romantic-comedy is the most important film genre of the 21st century. Primarily, and surprisingly, for their broad sense of diversity. Not quite diversity of representation (more on that later) but diversity in style. Some films are outright farces, others more measured and serio-comic, and others still barely comedies at all. Despite this broad spectrum, because they all focus on love and levity, two of the few tools humans have to cope with life, they are universal and frequently deep, saying more than a drama could about the human experience and, more importantly, human relationships. THE BIG SICK does this, while demonstrating a new spin on the genre, addressing that issue of representation AND telling a true story.

THE BIG SICK, directed by Michael Showalter (WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER) and written by Kumail Nanjiani (SILICON VALLEY) and Emily V. Gordon (THE CARMICHAEL SHOW), is an unconventional, true love story. Based on the real-life meet-cute of Nanjiani and Gordon, it tells the story of Kumail, a struggling stand-up comic and Emily, a graduate student studying therapy in Chicago, how they meet, fall in love, and attempt to bridge the cultural divide between their two families. If this was a traditional rom-com that would be all there is to the story. We’d see them consummate their relationship, fall apart because of an unforeseen difference (a focus on career/family tension), and then fall back in love as they give up something and choose each other. But instead THE BIG SICK puts one of its characters in a coma.

the big sick face

This cute scene about pooping was foreshadowing for drama!

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It seems strange and potentially problematic to put your female lead in a coma for what feels like a majority of the movie. Especially with a talented actress/writer like Zoe Kazan playing Emily, whose past work has focused on female agency in romance stories (see RUBY SPARKS). Sidelining her, especially after demonstrating such a charming performance, seems wrong, but the film finds Kumail rushing to the ER, forced to pretend to be Emily’s husband to allow doctors to place her into a medically induced coma to treat a mysterious infection. It’s overwhelming, for the characters and the audience, but leads to something very special.

This hospital situation is not just stressful because of the seemingly life or death situation Emily is placed in, but also because Kumail’s relationship is secret from the rest of his protective Pakistani family. Kumail’s mother, Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), has been attempting to set up an arranged marriage for him before the start of the film and will not consider anyone who isn’t of Pakistani descent (for example, a white girl like Emily). It’s rare to see a character of Middle Eastern descent as a lead, let alone featuring a whole family of Muslim characters, so this entire subplot is refreshing, for the humor of Kumail’s parents and the detail of their lives. Shroff in particular has a field day playing a mother who is stubborn to a fault, but still loves her son. The film’s portrayal of arranged marriage brings a similar nuance as well, showcasing the difficulties for the women who are forced to meet and potentially marry Kumail, in contrast to a large number of positive relationships that were formed because of the institution itself. It’s an interesting wrinkle, but really only half of THE BIG SICK picture.

the big sick ray

“Imagine meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time in the ER” is a good elevator pitch

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Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), are the true stars and at the epicenter of the film’s innovative take on the genre. Because as much as THE BIG SICK is about that initial spark between Kumail and Emily fueling a devotive dive into a medical odyssey, it’s also about romancing two parents, themselves a part of who Emily is. This seems to be the film’s main thesis, that to know someone and love someone, you are really coming to understand their relationships, the connections that form who they are, the people who have made them what they are today. The film finds no better of expression of this than in Hunter and Romano, both actors playing comedic characters with a startling depth and humanity. It is truly wonderful to see Hunter in a meaty, blockbuster role like Beth and she does wonders, initially antagonistic to Kumail and his nice guy character, before lowering her southern bulldog guard, revealing the compassion that Kumail so loves in Emily. Romano acts as a nice foil, the perfectly-flawed soft dad from the Bronx, delivering some of the best dad jokes of 2017. Together they teach Kumail how to love, which sounds cloyingly cliche, but very much works in the reality the film generates.


Precisely my feelings about this film

Strong writing and the subtle but deft direction of Showalter (in a film decidedly less zany than his earlier fair) makes THE BIG SICK succeed far beyond the average rom-com fare. It may have the very Apatow-esque lack of strong editing at 124 minutes (he serves as an executive producer) and a commitment to backstage stand-up culture that services the true story and not really the film, but everything else so greatly outweighs those that they are easy to forget. It even avoids the danger of its main conceit by allowing Emily post-coma to have the power. Kumail has devoted himself, realized his love for her, and grown in turn, but in the end, it is Emily who decides if their relationship will continue. When she does decide, it’s a moment of triumph, for a character whose life the audience has feared for and for a couple they are more than invested in. This film feels like a classic in the making, the kind of film that with the right amount of time could be referred to in the same breath of a WHEN HARRY MET SALLY or ANNIE HALL. It’s exciting and further proof that the romantic comedy genre has a lot to give and a lot yet still to say about relationships, whether they’re with comatose girlfriends or parents alike.

Verdict: Recommend

Ian Campbell is a guest contributor here at Crossfader. He wants you to like him just as much as he wants you to like the things he likes. He recommends you give Damon Lindelof a break.

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