The Big Sick is your standard romcom: Boy meets Girls, Boy Loses Girl By Being Stupid, Boy Eventually Wins Girl Back. [Sorry, SPOILER] There is nothing in this broadest outline of the story that makes it unique, but of course what makes romcoms work are the details. It’s Sally and Harry trying to set each other up and having their prospective dates fall for each other. It’s William’s friends making him see he was an idiot for breaking things off with Anna. It’s Aaron burying the lead and telling Jane that he loves her. In The Big Sick its Kumail’s attempts to keep both himself and his family happy, and the impossibility of trying to anything meaningful halfway.
The Big Sick was written by husband and wife Emily V Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, and stars Nanjiani as a version of himself as he falls in love with a version of Emily, played by Zoe Kazan. Kumail came to the US at 14 from Pakistan with his parents and “all” his parent ask of him is to be a good son and marry a Muslim woman from Pakistan. However, Kumail is unsure about his faith and is even more unsure about the steady parade of Pakistani women his mother arranges to “drop by” while he is visiting his parents for dinner.
Okay, so what about the criticism of the movie because (yet again) the object of the dweeby male’s desire is a white woman (although thankfully not a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl). I have to admit that I had never really thought about this stereotype before, instead taking it as an article of faith that the intelligent and funny man could get a woman who is physically out of his league. (Maybe I needed to believe this.) Woody Allen is the best example that I can think of, but Harry Burns falls into that class, as does Michael Dorsey. It was only in the last decade or so that I started to reckon with the idea that dogged pursuit of a woman who is not interested in you is not heroic or romantic. Growing up as a white male in this country blinds you to a lot.
In this case, Kumail is not, of course, a white male, yet as with Dev on Master of None, the most desired is a white woman. Is it fair to criticize The Big Sick in this regard? First of all, how the fuck should I know? As I indicated above, I’m the last person to have a relevant viewpoint on this. If people of color, especially women of color, tell me this is valid then I take them at their word. That being said, the Pakistani women who Kumail’s mother tries to set him up with are not set up as jokes, aside from maybe one woman who tries to be too enthusiastic about The X-Files. (I chalk her behavior up to the pressure these women are under.) There is nothing obviously wrong with the women except that from Kumail’s perspective they are not Emily, and they are not his choices.
(Here is a piece by Aditi Natasha Kini on the issue that I thought was very good.)
Late in the movie Kumail challenges his parents by asking why they would bring him to the US and then want to pretend they were still in Pakistan. His parents believe in arranged marriage or, as they call it, “marriage.” Kumail has been in the US long enough to believe in a love marriage or, as we call it, “marriage.” It’s difficult to try to live in two worlds, and Kumail’s relationship with Emily is undone because of this. Love means showing another person who you really are and asking them to love you anyway. Kumail can’t do that.
Maybe this all sounds very serious for a romcom, but there is also a near fatal infection, a long-time married couple trying to figure out how to go on, and a career crisis. But The Big Sick is also hilarious. There is one joke that I won’t spoil but it made me laugh harder than any movie joke in a long time. There is also a great scene featuring Holly Hunter, who plays Emily’s mother, that reminds me of why I’ve been a big fan of hers since at least Jane Craig. Emily’s father is played by Ray Romano who was great on the under-watched series Men of a Certain Age and again shows his dramatic (and comedic) skills here.
Kumail’s parents are played by Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher. Shroff is especially formidable as Kumail’s mother, and her anger when Kumail tells her that he is in love with a white woman is scary and heartbreaking. Kher, I had to be reminded, played Mr. Bhamra in Bend It Like Beckham and it’s interesting that this role has some of the same themes.
If the timing of things is a little too pat, and if maybe the parts about Emily’s parents and their relationship go on too long, it is still forgivable due to the chemistry between Emily and Kumail, and due to Kumail’s general decency, even though it leads him to hurt everyone he cares about. The outcome is never really in doubt and maybe that also is too pat, but it is sold on the looks on Emily’s and Kumail’s faces, a look that says that they see each other and they love each other anyway.