The Big Sick is a film I actually didn’t expect to like. Lots of red flags, aside from the god-awful title. Firstly, it’s a rom-com. I’m not really a fan of rom-coms (aside from ‘Just Go With It’; that’s a modern classic), but yeah, rom-coms are not usually my thing. The tired formula of boy meets girl, boy dates girl, boy and girl fall out over a lingering issue or lie, boy and girl reunite and are together forever, all whilst there’s probably an overweight friend making jokes about his/her weight with some unfunny physical comedy thrown in, is not my cup of tea. Second red flag: I couldn’t really imagine Kumail Nanjiani in a film. I’d seen a lot of his standup, all of ‘Silicon Valley’ and a few of the movies he’s had small roles in, but he never struck me as someone who could play the lead in a film. Third and final red flag: films based on a true story are rarely ones I actually like, I don’t know why, but even the good ones seem to often disappoint me a little bit. So I wasn’t massively optimistic for this film, but it really surprised me, and in a year where I’ve seen some incredible movies, it definitely ranks right towards the top.
It’s worth saying that whilst this is a rom-com, it’s not a typical one at all. I guess it does follow the classic formula that I talked about earlier, but it feels different, for a number of reasons. First off, the acting is another level to most others. Secondly, the writing is genuinely funny and witty, and largely resists cheap laughs. Thirdly and most crucially, rather than making it a standard 90 minute film, we get 2 hours of deep character development and well fleshed out writing. That plays a big part to us knowing every single character and sympathising with each and every one of them. Kumail is a sweet, struggling Pakistani comedian, conflicted between wanting to follow the ‘American Dream’ and bowing to the cultural pressure put on him by his parents. Emily is a strong, funny woman, who feels damaged and doesn’t want to date, but still falls in love with Kumail. Emily’s parents are going through a hard time in their marriage, after her father, Terry, cheats on her mother, Beth. Terry is a relatively apathetic, awkward man, and Beth is a feisty, intensely caring mother. The conflict all comes when Emily finds out that Kumail has been meeting women that his parents want him to marry, and that he has not told his parents about her out of fear of being kicked out of the family, all before she falls into a coma and Kumail feels like he wants to stay at the hospital with her parents.
One of the skills of this film, written by Nanjiani and his real wife, Emily V Gordon, is how the laughs lighten a really quite sad and dark film. We almost forget through the film, save for a few deeply emotional moments of worry, that Emily is in a really severe condition. It speaks volumes about Nanjiani that he can write hilarious standup and incredibly witty scripts, as well as being a super actor. Some scenes in this film are truly laugh-out-loud, a rarity in rom-coms. The 9/11 joke is the funniest of any film of 2017, don’t even try and argue differently, and one of Kumail’s prospective wives loudly quoting ‘The X Files’ is a very close second. Ray Romano is awkardly funny too, and some of the stand-up scenes do get some laughs, although there are probably too many of these scenes. We get a recurring laugh too from the frequent “dropping in” of young Pakistani women, something which my Bengali mother assures me is actually very accurate to what happens.
What separates this from other rom-coms, and lots of other films, is the raw, real emotion that Kumail and Emily make us feel. It’s rare to root so much for a couple to be together when you know that they end up married. Scenes that stick out for me are the argument where they split up, Kumail’s Montreal audition, his parents kicking him out of the family, and him refusing to accept this. I know that’s a lot of scenes, but thinking back, there are just so many amazing moments. I think lots of great films have one scene which is almost a microcosm of the entire film (take the coffee scene in Baby Driver), and for me that is Kumail going back to his family to tell them that he won’t let them kick him out of the family. In one short, 3 minute scene, we are dealing with a serious theme of cross-cultural love and how parental pressure can damage a family, but we get some good laughs, all before the gut-wrenchingly emotional line of: “I’m moving to New York to pursue stand-up, but I am not leaving this family.” After all the emotional turmoil that Kumail has been through, hearing him be assertive for the first time is so satisfying to see, and the way Nanjiani delivers his line is really moving. And the ending is just perfect, the chemistry between Najiani and Kazan is believable and super, and their final scene is as satisfying an end to this film as I could imagine.
There’s a few issues to address about this film, as some critics have called it “racist” and accused it of cultural stereotyping. Coming from an Indian family, I think I’m in a decent position to comment on this without sounding racist, so here goes. Below are some of the things that two critics, Deborah Ross of The Spectator and Hadley Freeman of The Guardian, have said:
“Whereas his parents (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff)? Plain stereotypes, more or less, what with always pressing food on him and prospective brides just happening to ‘drop by’ — this is a running joke — and it feels kind of racist. Further, no prospective bride from a Pakistani background could be a patch on Emily, is our understanding. None could be as bright, charming, funny, sexy. They always arrive with their matrimonial head shots which, over the years, Kumail has collected in a old cigar box. To convince Emily that he loves her, and will turn his back on his family if necessary, he burns the photographs, then presents her with the ashes, and it’s like he’s saying: ‘Hey, white girl, look how many brown girls I’ve incinerated for you! But you’re so worth it!’ This is the bad taste I can’t remove.” – Ross
“A running theme in The Big Sick is Nanjiani’s resistance to an arranged marriage, which is a perfectly reasonable position. What is less reasonable is the way all the Pakistani women his parents introduce him to are portrayed as pitiable, interchangeable and wholly conventional, even when they have lived in the US longer than Kumail, who was born in Pakistan. The only one who has potential is played by Vella Lovell, who isn’t even Pakistani but of mixed black and white descent. It’s as if the movie can’t imagine Kumail fancying a Pakistani woman, even in a fictional setting.” – Freeman
Right. You might agree or disagree with what’s above, but here’s my take on it. Firstly, to call Kumail’s parents “stereotypes” when they’re based on real people isn’t “racist”, it’s factual. Of course, the characters will probably be exaggerated slightly for comedy, but as someone who has a Bengali grandmother, “pressing food” on you isn’t a stereotype, it’s just accurate. It happened last weekend when we went to her house. That’s just the culture. And it’s funny. There’s nothing wrong or racist about that. Next. Ross says that “no prospective bride from a Pakistani background could be a patch on Emily” like it’s a bad thing. It’s not. He’s in love with Emily, so yeah, no one else is going to be good enough. That’s sort of the point. In the same way as his encounter with the white woman at the bar is hollow and meaningless, that’s what his meetings are like with the Pakistani women too. Again: not racist. Now, onto Freeman. She says that the women we are introduced to are “pitiable, interchangeable and wholly conventional”. Pitiable? No, not at all, besides the one who can’t eat bread. I’ll give you that one, but that was just funny. Interchangeable? Yes, but that’s the whole point! Kumail is being forced to meet tonnes and tonnes of women who he has no emotional connection to. So yes, they seem interchangeable because that’s how they are to Kumail. And conventional? Yeah…they are all participating (seemingly willingly) in arranged marriage…that’s conventional…so I don’t quite see the problem with representing them as conventional when that’s what they are. Why is that racist to acknowledge what plenty of Pakistani people are actually like? Remember, this actually happened to Kumail, so how can it be racist? The whole point is that Kumail is fighting against cultural pressure, so yeah, the women he’s meeting won’t come off as well as the woman he’s in love with. That’s not racist, and accusing it of that is nothing more than divisive and incorrect (bear in mind both these articles are written by two Caucasian women, who I don’t think speak for the Asian community. Me and my two Indian parents, and my Sri Lankan friend who have all seen the film didn’t take any offence to it. My mum actually said that she really related to it, and was really quite moved by it (to tears), so I don’t think tarnishing an amazing film’s name by calling it racist is sensible.
That turned into a bit of a rant, so I’ll wrap up by saying this film is really super, and was deservedly nominated for an Oscar. It’s awesome to see Asians getting recognised in Hollywood, as guys like Riz Ahmed, Dev Patel and Kumail Nanjiani are really leading the way and blazing a trail for future generations wanting to go into the industry. This film is funny, emotional and brilliantly acted. If you didn’t see it in 2017, watch it. Is it the best rom-com ever? As someone with little to no experience of rom-coms, I’ll say yes.
Best scene: The final dinner
Best character: Kumail
Best actor/actress: Holly Hunter
Best quote: “What’s my stance on 9/11? Oh um, anti. It was a tragedy, I mean we lost 19 of our best guys.” – Kumail