THE BIG SICK (2017): In Sickness and…

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has been popularly relevant for long enough to inspire an entire sub-genre of romantic comedy deconstructing it, of which The Big Sick is the latest entry. Based on the true story of writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s relationship, The Big Sick contributes to the conversation around the trope by – and it isn’t a spoiler because it’s in the title – putting the budding MPDG in a coma by the second act, and following the boy as he’s forced to confront how much he wants to invest in this relationship despite having broken up with her just before she went under, and having absolutely no guarantee of the relationship working out should he stay.

Nanjiani plays a dramatized version of himself, acting opposite Zoe Kazan, playing Emily. Their meet-cute is pretty by-the-books, especially for an Apatow production. She heckles him during his comedy set, he talks to her after the show, they have a one-night stand and refuse to see each-other again, but when she tries to call an Uber to get home from his place, discovers that he’s the nearest driver. And then comes the expected montage of making-out over B-movies and cutely finding excuses to be with one another despite telling each-other that neither wants to date. Having really only this first act to endear herself, Kazan successfully infatuates us with Emily, though, as is the case with many MPDGs, I’m finding it hard to describe the character with words other than like, bubbly, perky, quirky, etc.

Oh! There is a great little part of the montage where she’s embarrassed to poop in Kumail’s apartment while staying the night, coyly trying to get dressed in Kumail’s cramped room, and trying to avoid admitting the reason for her sudden strange desire to go to a diner at 3am.

She breaks up with him when she discovers his cigar-box full of headshots of other women – potential wives that his Pakistani family are arranging to marry him to – and discovering that, fearing that his traditional family would disown him, he hasn’t told them about their now months long relationship. But before his new wounds can even close, he’s called into the hospital and, being the only one available to do so, makes the choice for doctors to put her into an induced coma so that doctors can discover and treat a life-threatening infection.

And then he meets her parents. Having been the last serious relationship their daughter was in, and also being responsible for putting her in a coma, Kumail feels a responsibility to join Emily’s parents, Terry and Beth (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), in waiting for his ex to recover. Romano and Hunter are as close to a perfect screen duo as one could ask for. Physically; he’s large and roundish, she’s short and sharp, and this plays into their character dynamic. Terry is more reserved, taking notes on everything the doctors tell him about his daughter, barely speaking up for himself; while Beth is a fire-brand, picking fights with hecklers at a comedy show less than half her age. Despite meeting under the worst possible circumstances, their shared experience of taking care of Emily surely enough defrosts any coldness between them as Kumail gets to understand where this girl he finds himself slowly falling in love with came from, while they get to learn about the last man their daughter fell for.

Kumail’s growing closeness to Emily’s family plays inverse to the relationship to his own. Afraid of disappointing his very traditional mother and father (Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher), Kumail not only kept his white girlfriend a secret, but also hasn’t told them that he’s given up on Islam, on becoming a lawyer, and on any woman they try to arrange a marriage with despite how charming they may be. Kher and Shroff play as foils to Romano and Hunter, with Shroff being the one to introduce Kumail to all his could-be-brides over family dinner, while Kher covers for his son when he’s late for his paternally arranged dates.

Kumail himself centers the film on his own arc of learning to assert and be himself while finding out how to navigate between the Pakistani culture he was raised in and the American identity he’s made for himself as an immigrant. And this type of story is almost disappointingly fresh in romantic-cinema despite being a cornerstone of other American media for decades, if not centuries at this point. I mean, having a Pakistani-American lead in a movie should not be as important as this is in 2017, but having an entire story centered on the (dramatized) lived experience of one does separate this film from almost any other in its genre.

It also help the movie immensely that it never hits you over the head with it. While Kumail’s personal arc is based in the cultural navigation, it reveals itself more as him learning to open up to others – something that comes across mainly through the scenes of his early stand-up career. His early material is about either where he’s come from, or the things he grew up liking, and never so much about his actual experience, which he subtly integrates into his act as the film goes on. It’s less fish-out-of-water than turtle-coming-out-of-shell, and it’s the sort of story that’s almost tailor made for Kumail’s comedic delivery, which is dry and even, with punchlines sneaking up at the end of sentences rather than being announced after a set-up.

The Big Sick is a lovely and funny movie for exactly the sort of people who already like similar films like (500) Days of Summer or Ruby Sparks, but – despite its unique qualities – is likely still a too twee and lackadaisical in pace to really draw in people who don’t get anything from rom-coms. It’s a feel-good crowd-pleaser that probably won’t change your life to the degree that the story it’s based on changed its writers’. But if you’re looking for a fun date movie, or are single and like torturing yourself with projections of the sort of happiness that maybe you’ll find one day, you can do a whole lot worse.

 

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