The problem I have with most romantic comedies is that I just don’t give a damn. Two people meet, they get along but things are a bit rocky, and then in the end, they get together. What do I care if a couple’s personalities clash? The best romantic comedies aren’t really about whether a couple will get together or not. Instead they use that framework to highlight issues more universal than the quirks of an obscenely good-looking couple. Thankfully, The Big Sick takes this approach, and in the process, creates a unique romantic comedy that’s entertaining, illuminating, and strikingly modern.
The Big Sick is based on the real-life story of Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan). Kumail, who immigrated from Pakistan when he was young, comes from a family that expects him to marry a Pakistani girl. When he gets together with Emily, who is white, this cultural difference causes significant tensions. When Emily falls into a coma, Kumail meets Emily’s parents and is forced to come to terms with the conflict between his love for Emily and the expectations of his family.
In a genre polluted by the worst kind of derivative garbage, this film feels fresh. Rather than focus on the foibles of a couple, the film zooms out to larger social contexts: family and culture. As I learned shortly after getting married, even a couple that’s truly in love can be put under extreme strain by outside forces. This is doubly so when families come from different cultural backgrounds. The Big Sick covers this dynamic with a startling degree of compassion. There aren’t any evil parents here. There are only parents who are trying to do right by their children. Kumail’s parents truly believe that marrying a Pakistani woman is best for him. Emily’s parents truly believe that Kumail can’t possibly be good for Emily if he gives in to pressure from his parents. The movie isn’t about who’s right or wrong. It’s about how Kumail and Emily navigate this surfeit of unwanted good intention from their families. Alongside the family dynamics, the film also captures the difficulties facing many Asian Americans who came of age in the US with parents who grew up abroad. The film lovingly explores how Kumail struggles to balance respect for his parents and culture with a more typically American lifestyle. All of these topics come together to create a romantic comedy that has a lot to say about love in modern America.
Of course, none of this exploration would be worth anything if the movie were a slog. That’s definitely not the case. This film oozes with wit, charm, and at times, pathos. Kumail Nanjiani, who you might recognize from Silicon Valley, shows that he’s not just a comedian but an actor with a broad range. He and Zoe Kazan show real chemistry as a couple. Beyond the central couple, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents and Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff as Kumail’s parents, carry much of the weight of this film. While most romantic comedies rely heavily on the central couple, The Big Sick is unique in spending almost as much time with the parents of the protagonists. Without excellent performances from the parents, this film would not have been a success. The film isn’t perfect. From a visual standpoint, it’s completely unremarkable. You’d be just as well served watching this one on TV. In addition, at some points, transitions in characters seem a little uneven. These are minor quibbles for a film that truly warms hearts and opens eyes.
Some of my favorite movies let me live the shadow of another life for a couple of hours. This is where The Big Sick truly succeeds. This sweet love story is suffused with all the beautiful and complicated details of a modern relationship. Through the film, I could understand Kumail’s seemingly impossible choice. I could feel both his and Emily’s pain at having to break up a loving relationship due to forces out of either of their control. For a couple of hours, I was totally immersed in the details of another person’s life. What more could I ask for from a movie?