Editor Chloe Woods reviews Michael Showalter’s acclaimed rom-com.
WARNING: Spoilers ahoy.
I’m sorry. I didn’t love this film.
I feel the need to apologise because The Big Sick has been basking in an avalanche of praise since its earliest showings, and it feels churlish and arrogant – as a student blogger lurking in my small corner of the internet – to claim it has been overhyped. Actually, no, it’s not arrogant, and I’m not sorry. As a film-making endeavour, The Big Sick is a perfectly respectable piece of work, and as a film, it’s enjoyable enough. But the glowing praise lavished upon it for nothing so very groundbreaking speaks more to its reviewers’ expectations than anything else, and at its core there sits – whether deliberate or not – something much sadder and more pitiful than a lauded absence of mere cynicism would suggest.
Now I’m being arrogant.
But let us begin at the beginning. The Big Sick is based on the courtship between Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote the film. Nanjiani plays, er, Kumail Nanjiani – as himself, as a character of the same name, as something in-between: a version of himself, an interpretation, and one no doubt both purposefully and unintentionally skewed from the reality. Emily – last name changed to Gardner here – is portrayed by Zoe Kazan. Early in the film, they meet at one of his stand-up events, sleep together, agree not to pursue a relationship, do so anyway, then break up when Emily discovers the box of Pakistani headshots Kumail keeps for the day he maybe-possibly kowtows to the version of marriage his parents deem acceptable. As Emily points out, that’s something he should have mentioned to a girl who doesn’t fit the required mould; but Kumail is an inveterate secret-keeper, habitual apologiser, and constant liar – particularly to himself over the likely consequences of trying to maintain immediate peace while allowing serious issues to go unaddressed. Anyway, after the break-up, Emily falls ill and is placed in a medically-induced coma and Kumail plays nice with her family for the remainder of the film. (Spoiler: she lives. Double spoiler: the film ends with the clear implication they will get back together.)
It’s a rom-com, right? The rom-com of the year; though romantic comedies more often play up both the fantasy and the comedy in exchange for realism. The Big Sick has gone for something a little different. No matter how much of it really happened, the film is imbued with a consistent sense of reality, almost to the point of exaggeration: realism as caricature. There are points where this slips: aspects of the family dinners are clearly constructed according to story-logic rather than real-world-logic; so is the sheer awfulness of Kumail’s one-man show. For much of its run-time, though, The Big Sick feels more like mockumentary than film. It’s shot through with conversations so embarrassingly awkward, most of us would despair to suffer one in a month. How Emily and Kumail get from monosyllables to sex is a mystery, since their chemistry is most acute when they’re flinging insults at each other. Those great romantic milestones of “testing your romantic partner by whether they like your favourite movie” and “not being able to use the bathroom while your partner’s in the next room” make an appearance, and… Here’s the thing. I have no doubt these are indeed common parts of relationships. Not universal, but common enough. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less part of a script, a set of lines we use to reduce human connection to rote (sex on the third date and two-day rules), because we want the real world to play along by story-logic too. And according to story-logic, the guy gets the girl. So despite lying to her, despite doing nothing to earn back her trust – never mind her love, but her trust – despite the shallowness of grand romantic gestures, Kumail gets the girl. In real life, he got the girl. But I don’t know how much of this is true.
One day I will be able to write a review without it descending into a feminist rant. This is not that day. Yes: this is about male entitlement. And either it’s an honest reflection of what happened or it’s not and they decided to write it this way because it would be romantic – and who can blame them? 98% on Rotten Tomatoes would agree. Either way, I hope they’re happier than I thought that particular couple would be when leaving the cinema. For me, the difficulty lies in believing that the real people who live in these worlds of vanilla-Western story logic would be able to step outside and reconstruct them, given the difficulty they sometimes have in understanding other humans well enough to hold a functional conversation. In the most generous interpretation, then, it’s a film, and we can judge it as something closer to fiction than anything else.
The truly strong relationships in The Big Sick are those between Kumail and Emily’s parents: Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who manage to veer from those accepted archetypes and bring genuine pathos to their own deeply strained relationship. It doesn’t hurt that both actors, and particularly Hunter, overpower Nanjiani in terms of screen presence, while Kazan has little opportunity to interact with them on-screen. Kumail’s relationship with his family is also a fascinating one. Though he makes constant references to “my culture”, his loyalty to Pakistani culture is told rather than shown – in contrast to his Americanisation, rarely mentioned but leaping off the screen – and his hang-ups appear more due to fear of disappointing his family, or being outcast by them, than actually caring about the cultural practices they’re using as a marker. In other words, the conflict of the film stems from Kumail’s eagerness to keep his family happy while having no innate drive to fill the role allocated to him – and his ethical cowardice in refusing to deal with the consequences of this tension. When push comes to shove, he does make a decision, and I suppose the point of a pseudo-heroic arc is to conquer your flaws. The problem is that it doesn’t justify the romantic resolution: Emily has no way of knowing about this. And Emily herself has few apparent flaws, other than having a human rather than a limitless degree of patience over his prevarication.
It’s funny. I usually like things more than expected, and I wanted to like this film. The Big Sick has a lot going for it; it’s certainly both smarter than and distinctly different from what we might call the typical romantic comedy. That does not make it transcendental. Oh, and it’s not even all that funny.
The Big Sick is out now in UK cinemas. See the trailer below: