The Big Sick: The American Coma, by David Bax
Specificity is key to what makes Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick such an unqualified success and easily the best romantic comedy since Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child. This isn’t (or at least isn’t primarily) an issue-driven movie in which a Muslim Pakistani American dates a white girl, even though our president’s anti-Muslim stances and attempted policies have made the film more poignant than was likely intended. No, this is a movie about a man who is Muslim and Pakistani and also a stand-up comic who loves cult horror movies like The Abominable Dr. Phibes and who starts to date a white girl who is also a college student who hopes to become a therapist. It’s also incredibly sweet and funny as hell.
Kumail Nanjiani plays a version of himself, a Chicago comedian who falls in love with a girl named Emily (Zoe Kazan) just in time to see her fall ill and slip into a coma, during which he bonds with her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) while struggling against the expectations his own mother and father (Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher) and his brother (Adeel Akhtar) have for him. The screenplay is by Nanjiani and Emily Gordon and based on events in their actual relationship. And since Nanjiani is a comedian in real life, the movie is filled with realistic and hilarious stand-up comedy, a rarity in film, thanks to performances by Kurt Braunohler, Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham. The laughs continue offstage, too, with delicately dark humor like Kumail having to press the comatose Emily’s fingers onto her phone’s touch ID so that he can get her mom’s number and tell her what’s happened.
Despite The Big Sick being co-written by the couple whose lives it’s fictionalizing, Kumail is the sole true protagonist. With only a couple of exceptions in the latter half of the movie, he’s in every scene. Though it’s intriguing to imagine the story from the point of view of Emily or one of her parents, this isn’t a complaint because it does justice to Kumail’s background, taking the term Pakistani-American and humanizing both sides of that equation. One of the film’s most impressive achievements is treating the custom of arranged marriage seriously and respectfully, not as a joke or a signifier of a backwards culture.
Even while keeping all of these elements in the air, Showalter never loses sight of the fact that he’s supposed to be making a romance. The Big Sick is produced by Judd Apatow and might be the most focused work he’s ever had a hand in, even with its two hour running time. While far too many formulaic romantic comedies expect you to be invested in the main couple simply because the film insists on it, Showalter, Nanjiani and Gordon give nearly the first half of the movie over to the courtship, building and earning the emotional connections (character to character, audience to character) the way only the truly great romantic comedies do.
If The Big Sick is on its way to being a modern classic (and I think it is), it will be because it is both things, modern and classic. The story beats may be traditional but the sensibility, and especially the jokes, are of the moment. The dark comedy doesn’t just come from Emily deteriorating health. There are also multiple acknowledgements that many might not see Kumail as the lovable guy we do, because of his skin and accent. These run the gamut from a tense interaction with a heckler to a funny moment when Kumail, drawing stares due to a public argument with his brother, assures passersby, “We hate terrorists.”
Just because Kumail suffers the slings and arrows of prejudice with jokes doesn’t mean they don’t have an impact, especially because, in some ways, his parents are nearly as much a mystery to him as they are to non-Muslims. These divides, cultural and generational, raise the question of just what exactly the American dream is. Kumail’s parents left their lives and families behind to come here and give their children the best life possible. What is that if not the American dream? But Kumail uses the “land of opportunity” to pursue a longshot, high risk, low reward career as a comedian, not the doctor or lawyer his parents hoped for. Again, though, isn’t the freedom to choose your own path the American dream? The answer is that both paradigms are true, along with the countless other American dreams that people of every race, nationality, religion, gender, orientation and so on and so forth are striving for every day. The Big Sick just reminds us of one thing we all have in common. We all deserve to fall in love.