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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
<i>The Big Sick </i>lovingly updated the rom-com formula with a coma and a great 9/11 joke

The Big Sick lovingly updated the rom-com formula with a coma and a great 9/11 joke

Photo: Amazon/Lionsgate
When Romance Met ComedyWhen Romance Met ComedyWith When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.

For its first 40 minutes, last year’s The Big Sick follows a fairly familiar rom-com structure: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl are driven apart due to the fact that they’re from different worlds, even as the audience can tell a romantic reunion is all but inevitable. And then the film suddenly takes a hard left turn: Girl develops a deadly infection. Boy has to put girl into a medically induced coma. And boy spends the majority of the movie bonding with girl’s parents. It might sound like too absurd of a premise were it not for the fact that it really happened: The Big Sick is a fictionalized account of the unusual courtship between screenwriters and real-life married couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, who also plays a version of himself in the movie.

Remarkably, The Big Sick isn’t the first romantic comedy to center on a coma. A coma patient also features prominently in Sandra Bullock’s 1995 While You Were Sleeping, which shares a lot of DNA with The Big Sick. In that film, Bullock’s character winds up posing as a coma patient’s fiancée (in a way that’s slightly less creepy than it sounds) only to fall in love with his brother instead. But she also falls in love with his family, too, which is a major theme in The Big Sick: Starting a life with someone means becoming part of their extended family, and there are both complications and joys to be found in that kind of melding, particularly when there are two very different kinds of families involved.

The Big Sick centers on Chicago stand-up comedian Kumail (Nanjiani) as he falls for psychology grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan). The problem is, Kumail comes from a traditional Pakistani Muslim home, and his immigrant parents (played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) expect him to marry a Pakistani Muslim woman. Troubled by Kumail’s inability to fully commit, Emily breaks up with him just a few weeks before she winds up in that medically induced coma. (The pre-coma breakup is the place where The Big Sick most diverges from Gordon and Nanjiani’s real-life story.) Yet despite the fact that they’re no longer dating, Kumail can’t bring himself to leave Emily’s side, so he becomes a constant hospital companion and advocate alongside her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). While Emily fights her illness, Kumail matures into the sort of supportive partner she deserves.

If there’s an obvious precedent for a coma-centered rom-com, there’s less precedent for mainstream rom-coms—one of the least diverse genres in Hollywood, which is really saying something—featuring interracial couples or centering on a South Asian-American Muslim lead. The examples of the latter that do exist are exceptions to the rule, like 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham, about a British-Indian Sikh teenager who wants to play soccer, or 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, about an Indian Muslim character on a romantic quest—neither of which are even really proper rom-coms. (Notably, Netflix’s Master Of None, which debuted in 2015, does tackle a lot of the same subject matter as The Big Sick, but within a more episodic, wide-reaching format.)

And The Big Sick is an excellent example of why calls for more diversity don’t just fulfill a social good; they fulfill an artistic one as well. There are so many great moments in The Big Sick that couldn’t exist in yet another rom-com about a white male architect and/or bookshop owner. The funny, complex, and ultimately moving relationship between Kumail and his parents is grounded in their specific experiences as Pakistani immigrants. (Both in real life and in the film, Nanjiani grew up in Pakistan but moved to America as a teenager.) Some rom-coms struggle to articulate why their male leads are so hesitant to commit, but The Big Sick roots Kumail’s commitment issues in a high-stakes culture clash; choosing to be with Emily could literally mean being ostracized from his family forever. And the specificity of The Big Sick doesn’t just lead to great drama; it leads to great comedy too, including probably the best 9/11 joke in film history.

Yet while The Big Sick tells a wholly original real-life story, it does so through the lens of comfortingly familiar rom-com beats. It’s a film that’s simultaneously like nothing you’ve seen before and like a lot of things you’ve seen before, which is a perfect sweet spot for modern day rom-coms to hit. (The recently released Love, Simon is another lovely example of that kind of familiar yet different rom-com storytelling, though it doesn’t come together with the same artistry of The Big Sick.) In addition to its overall similarities to While You Were Sleeping, The Big Sick’s naturalistic banter is reminiscent of When Harry Met Sally. The “torn apart by different worlds” dynamic feels akin to Notting Hill, even if the worlds in question are quite different. The fact that the film centers on one member of the romantic pairing more so than the other calls to mind a whole bunch of different rom-coms, including Bridget Jones’s Diary. The Big Sick also belongs to a subcategory of rom-coms told from a male point of view, including Four Weddings And A Funeral, The Wedding Singer, and Made Of Honor.

All of those loving reference points likely stem from the fact that Kumail Nanjiani unabashedly adores rom-coms. As a guest on the NPR podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, Nanjiani joked that he could spend three hours not just talking about the genre in general, but talking about one of Andie MacDowell’s line readings in Four Weddings And A Funeral specifically. That movie is a particular favorite of Nanjiani’s, and he and Gordon watched it together on their own wedding day. As is mentioned in The Big Sick, teenage Nanjiani really did model his haircut on the film’s star, Hugh Grant. Director Michael Showalter and producer Judd Apatow also have long histories with the rom-com genre—Showalter co-wrote the Paul Rudd/Amy Poehler rom-com parody They Came Together, while Apatow basically invented his own genre of rom-coms with the likes of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. But Nanjiani brings a pure love of the genre, rather than a desire to comment on it in some way.

There’s no meta quality to The Big Sick’s rom-com structure, but it does strip away the glossiness that came to define the genre in the early 2000s. The Big Sick feels like a return to the more grounded rom-coms of the 1990s, even as it updates its references and sensibilities for our contemporary age. In place of an impeccably decorated Nancy Meyer house, Kumail lives in the realistic squalor of a male comedian’s apartment (he sleeps on an inflated mattress on the floor). And The Big Sick acknowledges that an up-and-coming stand-up would need a second job—in this case, working as an Uber driver.

In addition to its relative realism, the most successful thing about The Big Sick is how well it walks the line between drama and comedy. The stakes of most rom-coms are “Will these two beautiful people end up together?” The stakes of The Big Sick are “Will this unknown infection kill Emily?” The film includes a genuinely gut-wrenching scene in which Kumail sits by Emily’s hospital bed and whispers, “I don’t know if you can hear me or not, but it would be really good if you pulled through. If you have to go, you can go, but it would be great if you stayed.” That comes after another devastating scene in which Kumail bombs a big stand-up performance because he’s so distraught about the news that the infection has moved to Emily’s heart.

Best known for playing the acerbic Dinesh on Silicon Valley, Nanjiani is remarkably confident in his first leading role. That he nails the film’s deadpan, awkward comedy is unsurprising, but Nanjiani proves he’s a genuine actor, not just a moonlighting comedian, with emotional scenes like that stand-up breakdown. And he gets to show off the inherently endearing persona he’s been putting to good use for years in comedy and podcasting, but to a lesser extent in his previous acting work.

The biggest weakness of The Big Sick is one that plagues a lot of rom-coms that focus on one romantic partner more than the other—Emily never quite clicks as a character in her own right. Kazan is likable enough and Emily has her endearing moments, most notably a funny Gordon-penned scene in which she has to navigate the intricacies of pooping at a new significant other’s apartment. But there’s not quite enough there to make up for the fact that, by necessity, Emily has to drop out of the story for quite a while during her illness. Ultimately, the real-life Gordon—a therapist-turned-writer who, among other things, wrote for The Carmichael Show and penned the nonfiction book Super You—is much more interesting than her fictional counterpart. (If you ever doubt that love exists, I highly suggest listening to Kumail wax lyrical about his wife on his 2015 episode of the Nerdist podcast.)

Which isn’t to say that The Big Sick has a problem with female characters. In fact, for a male-driven rom-com, it has a notably strong handle on its supporting women. One of the movie’s best and most unexpected scenes belongs to Vella Lovell’s Khadija, a Pakistani woman Kumail is ostensibly supposed to be courting. Khadija calls Kumail out for the way his “one foot in, one foot out” approach to dating is hurting everyone around him, yet she still manages to feel like a real person and not just a plot device. And while Kumail’s marriage-obsessed mom, Sharmeen, could’ve easily been treated as little more than a Mrs. Bennet–esque punchline, The Big Sick finds the core of humanity beneath her sometimes comically over-the-top behavior.

But the film’s best female character is Holly Hunter’s Beth, who feels like a wholly original creation. A North Carolina woman from a military family married to a nerdy math teacher from New York, Beth is simultaneously warmly maternal and fiercely no-nonsense. Hunter played a big role in shaping the character, right down to bringing matching necklaces for her and Kazan to wear in order to ensure Beth and Emily’s relationship felt close even though the two don’t share much screentime. Initially brusk toward the man who broke her daughter’s heart, Beth gets the biggest arc outside of Kumail’s as she slowly and believably warms to his inherent kindness. But Hunter makes it clear that Emily is always Beth’s first priority. Little moments like slipping on her daughter’s sweater or tucking Emily in with a quilt from home (another prop specifically chosen by Hunter) speak volumes about Beth as a mother. And while The Big Sick was rightly nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, it’s a shame Hunter wasn’t also singled out.

Equally great is Ray Romano as Terry, one of the most realistic and heartfelt awkward dads ever captured on film. He’s the sort of man confused by a world that tries to suggest Forrest Gump isn’t the best movie ever made. But Terry isn’t just funny. He also represents the core of sadness at the heart of The Big Sick. Late into the film, he reveals to Kumail that he cheated on Beth, something he instantly regretted and told Beth about immediately. That gets at the thesis of the movie: To love someone is to open yourself up to the pain of watching them be hurt, whether that’s by an illness you can’t control or an emotional pain you inflicted on them yourself. Terry explains, in his own hilariously ineloquent way, that he didn’t know just how much he loved Beth until he betrayed her. And that reveals the heart of Kumail’s story: Sometimes you don’t know what love is until you face the prospect of losing it.

Although Kumail and Emily are the film’s central couple, Beth and Terry are perhaps even more so its beating heart. (As Gordon has clarified, Beth and Terry are two of the more fictionalized elements of the movie—her real-life parents didn’t struggle with infidelity issues.) The moment Beth decides to end her standoff with Terry is as emotionally satisfying as the film’s more traditional happy ending. There’s also a more low-key celebration of the loving bond between Kumail’s parents as well. Their arranged marriage may have had a different origin story than a traditional American romantic relationship, but it’s a fierce, loving, and long-lasting partnership.

That The Big Sick works a bit better as an ensemble character dramedy than as a romance isn’t all that unusual for the rom-com genre. Plenty of successful rom-coms, including Sleepless In Seattle and Four Weddings And A Funeral, share that same quality. The romantic comedy genre is more malleable than it’s often given credit for, and The Big Sick offers a promising path for future rom-coms to follow: Look to the past while forging your own future. As Nanjiani so eloquently put it during a montage at this year’s Oscars, “Some of my favorite movies are movies by straight white dudes, about straight white dudes. Now straight white dudes can watch movies starring me, and you relate to that. It’s not that hard. I’ve done it my whole life.” For audiences of all kinds, The Big Sick is a great place to start.

Next time: Something Borrowed and rom-coms that hate women.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.