After all of the big special effects blockbusters I’ve seen lately, a film like The Big Sick, a smaller, more intimate work that focuses on a human drama and relationships, was the right change of pace for me.
The movie, though fictionalized, is based on the real life relationship between comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon. The two cowrote the film, with Kumail starring as a character who shares his name and occupation, basically a version of himself.
In the film, Kumail is a young Pakistani Muslim man living in Chicago who struggles to balance his Americanized life as a bachelor and comedian with his cultural background. This creates particular tension with his parents, who believe very strongly in arranged marriage and insist on finding him a Pakistani woman to be his wife, much to his dismay. Things become complicated when he meets and falls in love with Emily, a white woman whom his family would not approve of. Though their relationship starts out well, she eventually breaks up with him for failing to explain his family’s background and tradition of arranged marriage to her, as well as for keeping his relationship with her a secret from them. The plot takes a turn when, shortly afterword, Emily suddenly becomes ill and is put into a medically-induced coma. Kumail, who still loves her, chooses to remain close by her as much as possible until she recovers; in doing so he meets Emily’s parents Beth and Terry (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), who travel to Chicago to be near to their daughter.
This setup makes for a good film, allowing for the exploration of important themes concerning love, responsibility, family, and cultural identity, and how problematic it can be to reconcile them with each other. The Pakistani Muslim culture from which Kumail comes is so orthodox and rigid that him choosing to be with a white, non-Muslim woman is potential grounds for expulsion from his family, whom he loves dearly but whose religious and cultural views he long ago left. And that’s not to say that his family is “bad”; the film does not vilify them and in general portrays them positively; but never the less they do, in some sense, represent the biggest obstacle that Kumail must attempt to overcome in this film.
Kumail’s lack of connection to his real family stands in somewhat stark contrast to his growing relationship with Beth and Terry. Though initially suspicious of Kumail (they know that Emily had broken up with him), they grow fond of him, admiring his devotion to their daughter, and, in some way, become surrogate parent figures for him. They provide for him a surprisingly genuine example of love and learning to make a relationship work, even in truly difficult times, that clearly inspires his own resolve to make things right with Emily.
Knowing that this was based on a true story, and that the real Kumail and Emily are still together, I don’t feel like I’m spoiling the film to say that she does recover and they do get back together in the end. But while the movie delivers on a happy ending, it is never the less smart enough to acknowledge the sobering truth that sometimes there isn’t an easy way out of the kind of situations that Kumail finds himself in. Sometimes there isn’t a magic fix when family, culture, and relationships all come into conflict. Sometimes real sacrifices have to be made to do what one feels is right.
That probably sounds weighty, so it is worth mentioning that, while serious when it needs to be, this is actually a fairly light hearted film. Kumail’s occupation as a comedian provides many good, insightful jokes throughout the film. Additional humor comes from the supporting cast through antics Kumail’s family’s attempts to find him a wife, Emily and Kumail’s relationship quirks, and Beth and Terry’s down-to-earth, take-no-flack attitude towards the rest of the world. As a side note, while the acting in the film is generally good all around, Hunter and Romano arguably steal the show, bringing wonderful passion and authenticity to their depiction of a no nonsense middle-aged couple.
Where the movie has issues, they’re only minor problems of flow and writing. It drags a bit too much in the third act, taking too long to get to the conclusion; it could have been shortened up a bit. Also, though the movie is fictionalized and is therefore not intended to depict exactly what happened in reality, a few moments felt just a tad too disingenuous and movie-ish for a story that is supposed to be at least somewhat true. I have a hard time, for example, believing that Kumail was picking up women at bars with nearly the frequency that the movie seems to imply that he does. It’s possible, I suppose, but I suspect this was something made up specifically for the picture. There’s also a few interactions between Kumail and his family that felt odd for similar reasons. That said, these are very minor quibbles; and I really should not be too hard on a movie for adjusting certain events for storytelling reasons.
Overall, The Big Sick is a very nice comedy-drama. It’s smarter and more insightful than I was expecting, and I was genuinely moved by the story. I recommend seeing it.