The Big Sick
“Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani-American from a Muslim family, leads a romantic comedy that has played to sell-out theaters in its first week of previews.”
Title: The Big Sick (2017)
Director: Michael Showalter 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Emily V. Gordon 👩🏼🇺🇸 and Kumail Nanjiani 👨🏽🇺🇸🇵🇰
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Judd Apatow-produced The Big Sick is a modern rom-com, depicting the real life relationship between the film’s writers, comedian Kumail Nanjiani and writer/producer Emily V. Gordon. Though this film tackles heavy topics such as illnesses, rocky marriages, and family tensions, Nanjiani’s brand of dry wit keeps the film from ever feeling overwrought.
While I can’t say The Big Sick has enough creative storytelling to feel like one for the books—beyond the welcome Pakistani-American perspective, this is a traditional plot shot with traditional cinematography—it did grab my interest from start to finish and delivers a laudable, optimistic story of cultural exchange and human connections.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Women have complex and interesting roles in this film. Through the romantic interest, Emily (played by Zoe Kazan), we find a relatable young woman who feels vulnerable about dating due to past relationships that have not worked out. But when a good thing comes along, she slowly opens up; her insecurities are incredibly realistic and the film’s narrative is never judgmental, even as we all root for Nanjiani to win her over.
Even more interesting is Emily’s mother, played by Holly Hunter. She’s prickly and unlikable at first, but with some backstory and shared scenes with Nanjiani, she becomes his biggest advocate and someone to admire and root for in her own right.
The only reason I’m not giving this a full score is due to screen time. Kumail gets the lion’s share, while Emily is in a medically-induced coma for at least half of the film. The side characters—friends, Kumail’s family—also skew male. Writer Emily V. Gordon is probably to thank for the strong female portrayals, but you can still tell this is the showcase of a male comedian, backed by two male producers and viewed through the lens of a male director.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way—Kumail Nanjiani is a South Asian male playing the romantic lead in a landscape where I still see bullshit like this, emblazoned on billboards in New York City:
Nanjiani himself has dealt with problematic romances on HBO’s Silicon Valley. To be fair, they’ve righted this stereotype in its latest season by giving his character Dinesh a girlfriend, but previous to that he suffered patronizing characterization as a nerd with no game. For example, in an earlier season he creates an entire video chat app in order to flirt with a girl. But she ghosts as soon as the video resolution is high enough to see his face, which I found tone-deaf at best and offensive at worst.
This dearth of romantic roles for Asian-American men makes it all the more cathartic when we see Nanjiani, a Pakistani-American from a Muslim family, lead a romantic comedy that has played to sell-out theaters in its first week of previews in New York City and Los Angeles.
The plot is otherwise fairly straightforward: guy falls in love with girl, they break up, a huge life event happens, and then the two individuals come together for a happy ending. Within this familiar structure, it’s the Pakistani curve ball that provides the color. Whether it’s Emily being put off by Kumail’s defensive explanation of arranged marriages or Kumail’s family disapproving of him dating a white girl, it’s these cultural conflicts that feel interesting to me instead of been-there-done-that explorations of class differences (e.g. Dirty Dancing or Pretty Woman) or personality clashes (e.g. Knocked Up or When Harry Met Sally).
Mediaversity Grade: A- 4.50/5
The depiction of interracial relationships feels more and more relevant in the face of rapidly changing demographics. According to Pew Research Center, nearly 1 in 7 marriages were interracial in 2008—double the rate in the 1980s and six times that of the 1960s. It makes sense, then, to see these stories reflected onscreen. The Big Sick is part of what I hope to be a revitalization of the stale romantic comedy genre alongside recent, equally diverse works such as Meet the Patels, Netflix’s Master of None or the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
For those of us caught between two worlds—growing up with Uber and Tinder yet navigating anachronistic holdovers such as the ban on interracial marriage that stuck until November 2000 (Alabama, always on the right side of history!)—The Big Sick perfectly captures the Millennial experience with all the cultural tensions that come with changing demographics while highlighting the evergreen understanding that at the end of the day, we’re all just human, looking for the right people to share our lives with.