“The very essence of romance is uncertainty.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
*I saw The Big Sick on Tuesday – 28 June 2017 at the AMC Metreon in San Francisco.
Is there any genre as creatively restrictive as the romantic comedy? Since first entering the public consciousness during the Roman Empire (thanks to Andria, aka The Girl from Andros by African-Roman playwright Terence), the genre has shown almost no variation from its formula: boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy and girl get back together and live happily ever after. What potentially differentiates each tale is what the storyteller does in-between those necessary beats. Still, the beats have to be hit. Hell, Shakespeare – whom Terence influenced – could write the genre straight (Midsummer, Twelfth Night, Taming of The Shrew) or mash it up with tragedy (The Winter’s Tale, The Merchant of Venice), but even he had to deliver on the happy ending when all was said and done.
And that’s the secret to enjoying a rom-com if it’s not you’re preferred genre: you just have to remember that it’s about the journey, not the destination. It’s not just knowing that the riddle will be solved, it’s how it’s solved that’s of interest to we audience-folk. A good rom-com can make a single person cling on to the idea of true love and make someone in a relationship hold their loved one tighter; a bad rom-com makes you want to walk into the offices of Hallmark and burn everything to the ground. Unfortunately, there are far more of the latter than the former – ill-conceived promotions of unhealthy relationships that are force-fed to the public as innocuous fluff.
The Big Sick is a good rom-com. It’s not a great one – mainly to the restrictions of the genre – but it’s a fine example of how the very look of “love” is changing every day.
Kumail Nanjiani is a stand-up comedian. Actually, he’s an Uber driver who does stand-up on the side, but everyone has to start somewhere, right? During one of his sets, the Pakistani-borne funnyman gets “heckled” by an attractive blonde named Emily. When he goes to talk to her about it after the show, talking turns to drinks, drinks turn to him driving her home, then her accidentally sending him the Uber alert to drive her home.
After months of happy dating, the two hit a couple of speed-bumps: a fight over Kumail’s refusal to mention her to his family; and Emily entering into a medically-induced coma as the result of an unspecified infection. So as Kumail waits with Emily’s parents (who know the couple fought) to hear the latest, and tries to dodge his own parents’ attempts to arrange marriage for him, the question remains as to whether Kumail will ever get the chance to talk to Emily again.
I recently learned that this film is based on the true story of Nanjiani and his wife, writer Emily V. Gordon, with whom he co-wrote the screenplay. In 2007, she was placed in a medically-induced coma as the docs tried to fight a mysterious illness that overtook her. It’s a compelling story in and of itself, so it’s easy to see why they thought it would make an interesting narrative story. The only real problem is the aforementioned confinement of the genre: The Big Sick goes to a few really dark places and has the characters evolve in a way that’s both realistic and the kind of thing from which there’s no real turning back. But since this is a rom-com, there’s a bit of a square-peg-in-round-hole factor working against the story. Despite being based on a true story, if the film had gone in the direction it was heading, it would have a bold move. But since it was adapted for such a rigid genre, it means that this film will force a happy ending down the audience’s throat one way or another.
But what’s good is really good. Nanjiani’s behind-the-scenes look at the world of Chicago stand-up and the lives of Pakistani-American Muslims is both hilarious and insightful. It doesn’t force the latter on the audience in a “We’re just like you!” shout, but rather lets the audience in on the intimate moments of the family. Such moments include Kumail’s family’s numerous attempts to arrange a wife for him: none of the women are stupid (one, played by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Vella Lovell, seems like she would be perfect), they just aren’t right. And Emily’s parents, Terry and Beth (Ray Romano and Academy Award-winner Holly Hunter, respectively), have a natural rapport that makes it easier to believe that these two have been together forever. (It also makes their forced happy ending a bit harder to swallow, as their marriage has hit a rough patch of late.)
The State, Stella, and Wet Hot American Summer veteran Michael Showalter has clearly developed more directorial confidence since he made The Baxter, and that was already directed with a sure and steady hand. As intimate as the family and relationship scenes are, Showalter’s own comedic experience lends a further authenticity to the comedy material. Watching Kumail sit backstage and bounce material off of his fellow stand-up friends – including Bo Burnham, Kurt Braunohler, and SNL’s Aidy Bryant – have a realism that producer Judd Apatow tried and failed to portray in his film Funny People. My favorite joke may have revolved around Kumail’s one-man show, with Emily asking how a one-man show differs from stand-up (something I ask whenever I see a shitty solo show).
As most people know, Amazon recently began to acquire snake-oil palace Whole Foods. Given that Amazon produced this film and that a crucial takes place in Whole Foods, I wonder if it can be consider preemptive product placement? It just rubbed me the wrong way, but it was just a single scene.
And that’s The Big Sick in a nutshell: when it forces itself into the conventions of the rom-com genre, it suffers; but when it allows itself and its characters to simply be who they are, everyone benefits from it.