When I wrote about the marketing of The Big Sick last year the buzz around the movie was at a fever pitch. It had debuted at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival to much acclaim for the script by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, which was based on the real story of how they had met and their early relationship. Likewise, the performances by Nanjiani as himself, Zoe Kazan as Emily and Holly Hunter and Ray Ramano as her parents as well as the direction of Michael Showalter had all been enthusiastically praised. It was being held as a fresh and original take on the stale rom-com genre.
The story follows Kumail and Emily from the moment they meet when she’s in the audience at one of his standup shows. A slightly awkward and halting romance begins and eventually flourishes. Initially the biggest problem that gets in their way is that his family expects him to get in line and eventually agree to an arranged marriage, as is common in their culture. So the couple breaks up. Shortly after that Emily winds up in the hospital with an illness that confounds the doctors and leaves her in a coma for a long time. Despite the fact that her parents don’t want him there, Kumail keeps hanging around, eventually winning them over. When she wakes things are back to being difficult and awkward as the couple has to once more find their way.
When the movie was being sold by Amazon Studios there was a heavy emphasis on Nanjiani, which makes sense since 1) He’s a fairly recognizable comedian and 2) Kazan spends a good chunk of the movie playing a coma, which limits her range. So the trailer was more focused on scenes involving the interplay between Nanjiani and Ramano in particular. That was also seen in how the studio released a clip of a particularly notable conversation between the two of them that had been frequently cited by those who saw it at Sundance as a standout moment of comedic writing (a tactic I took issue with).
On other fronts of the campaign, the press push was filled with interviews with Nanjiani and Gordon – either on their own or together – where they talked about writing the film and their relationship and the unusual path it took. Even the poster made that appeal, using the tagline “An awkward true story.” So the audience was constantly being reminded that this was a real story, no matter how unusual it might seem.
The fact that it’s based on a true story and didn’t fall into most of the cliches that the romantic comedy genre is usually given to is part of why critics – and eventually audiences – latched onto it. That’s what was sold and that’s pretty much what it delivers.
I’ve long been a fan of Nanjiani, enjoying his frequent supporting appearances in various films as well as on “Portlandia,” where he shows up all the time, usually as some sort of difficult clerk or waiter. He takes his verbal dexterity and unique delivery to another level here. There was a slight risk I felt of someone we enjoy in small roles not really working when taking on the lead, but those were unfounded as he’s just as great here as he has been. He plays an updated version of the Judd Apatow romantic lead. Where Apatow was determined to champion the schlubby guy, those characters were too often aimless, unmotivated losers whose general approach to life should have turned off the women they pursued more than their appearance.
Instead, this new model is someone who wants to succeed, but wants to do so on his own terms, who wants to follow a dream and keep working and paying his dues until it pays off. He knows how lucky he is to win over any woman but instead of refusing to give up weed he just wants to show her his favorite zombie movies.
Kazan is no less charming. Even though she disappears for much of the middle third of the film, she makes the most of her time on-screen. Again, the character she plays is a more modern variation on the kinds of characters we’ve seen in other movies. She is given all the agency in the story and relationship. On their first date, she’s the one who gets up and leaves and as they keep seeing each other it’s her that is continually saying she can’t do a relationship at this point in her life. Then when problems emerge, it’s her that leaves, rightfully explaining how she feels betrayed. After her coma is over, she puts the kibosh on restarting the relationship, something he accepts at the time.
In another movie, her decisions would have been met with behavior by the male character that’s meant to come off as “devoted” or “charming” but which is actually “stalker-like.” Instead, Nanjiani accepts her decisions, albeit reluctantly and with great disappointment, but then moves on. There are no grand romantic (read: “creepy”) gestures or anything we’ve seen countless times. It just…is.
All of that is much of what’s original and enjoyable about the movie, especially in retrospect. In the moment, you’re focused on the banter between Nanjiani and Ramano as well as the powerhouse performance by Hunter (a brilliant bit of casting as she and Kazan actually look like they could be kind of related). It’s only after it’s over and you’re continuing to mull the movie that you realize how many expectations and conventions the story subverts.
That Gordon and Nanjiani were able to tell this story and adhere (mostly) to actual events is pretty remarkable as it’s easy to see a studio insisting on changes that would test better with audiences.
As many have pointed out, it’s also incredibly unique that they were able to so deftly and honestly tell a story involving two different cultures. Usually if there are racial or ethnic differences between two romantic leads there are lots of pratfalls and hijinks and inappropriate terminology used for “comedic” effect. Not here. Nanjiani certainly wants to highlight the sometimes oppressively traditional perspective of his Pakistani family, but never in service of a cheap laugh.
The problems resulting from he and Emily dating and becoming serious are *actual* issues, not one where someone’s just going to scowl because of some stereotypical behavior. That’s highly unusual, and the fact that the movie avoids those pitfalls makes how common other films fall into them all the more evident.
On many fronts, The Big Sick is just the kind of unconventional story we need more of. This isn’t one that tries to sell the “post-racial” fictional worldview. Everyone knows “I don’t see color” is a lie. Instead, the characters simply aren’t going to let ethnic differences get in their way. But to do so, you have to acknowledge their existence, not ignore them and hope they go away. That, as much as anything, is what’s so interesting and refreshing about the movie.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.