One of the biggest challenges to contemporary cinema is how to rehabilitate the romantic comedy for an era and demographic that seems to have utterly exceeded its message about the right way to conduct and enjoy romance. Indeed, at times the future of cinema almost feels dependent upon the survival of the romcom, and its ability to continue to generate feel good experiences, even if those experiences seem considerably harder to manufacture convincingly in a post-recession economy in which all the fantasies of the good life once so inextricable from romantic comedy have become increasingly untenable and unbelievable. For that reason, crafting a romantic comedy that is genuinely romantic, genuinely funny and genuinely feel-good in its outlook and atmosphere has, strangely, become one of the greatest formal achievements possible in contemporary Hollywood, and one of the key indices of auteurism as it now exists in the wake of digital and post-cinematic technologies.
Of all the revised romantic comedies released in the 2010s, The Big Sick is one of the funniest, moving and accomplished, thanks in part to how brilliantly it acts as a vehicle for Kumail Nanjiani, who wrote it, stars in it, and based it upon his own real life romance with writer and podcast host Emily V. Gordon. As good as the reviews have been, I couldn’t quite believe that any single screenplay could live up to Nanjiani’s comic persona so far, or manage to be as edgy as his stand-up comedy, or his roles in Portlandia and Silicon Valley in particular. Yet Nanjiani and Gordon’s script doesn’t merely equal his previous roles but exceeds them, providing us with that rare thing – a mainstream vehicle that nevertheless manages to showcase a comedian at their most idiosyncratic and innovative. While a certain amount of The Big Sick may take place in and around the world of stand-up comedy, then, this world always feels completely continuous with the main narrative arc of the film, and is never called upon to do all the heavy lifting. Perfectly integrated with the rest of the action, it speaks to a script that itself often takes on the spontaneous witticisms of live comedy, thanks in part to Nanjiani’s consummate gift for turning conversation itself into a kind of stand-up, a natural counterpart to the convivial intimacy of his stand-up signature itself.
In part, you also have to attribute that to Michael Showalter’s direction, since this is a film that is not only minutely alive to the vagaries of the stand-up scene – Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler all make appearances – but to how much can potentially be lost when a stand-up persona, and indie comic figure, is translated to the big screen. Yet it’s the screenplay that ultimately distinguishes The Big Sick, or at least the idiosyncrasy of Nanjiani and Gordon’s story, which inspired the screenplay. Across the abbreviated first act, this plays out more or less as a standard millennial romantic comedy, as Kamail and Emily (Zoe Kazan), a loose version of Gordon, meet after one of his shows and embark upon a series of encounters while telling each other, and themselves, that a relationship is not really what they’re looking for. This progression from casual hookups to conventional romance has been the defining trope of the last ten years of romcoms, and yet even this most recognisable part of the film is distinguished by the warmest and least sceptical romantic atmosphere that I have seen in years. At one point, Kumail sheepishly confesses to Emily that he modelled his high school “look” after Hugh Grant, and while the comparison is comic, it’s not that out of place either, since this first part of the film is clearly modelled after the classic 90s romantic comedy, and suffused with something of its sweetness as well.
It’s only a matter of time, however, before the romance goes south, with Emily finding out inadvertently that Kumail has more or less committed himself to an arranged marriage to please his parents – or, at the very least, that he hasn’t categorically excluded it. After a dramatic argument, the relationship more or less ends, and Kumail doesn’t have any contact with Emily until he receives a phone call in the middle of the night from one of her friends, who tells him that she has been taken to hospital with an infection and that nobody else can be there with her. Upon arriving at the emergency room, however, he finds that the infection is more serious than the doctors initially realised, and that they need the immediate permission of a family member to put her in an induced coma before things progress any farther. In a split-second decision, he poses as her husband to sign the form, and then sticks around the hospital until her parents – Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) – arrive from out of town to await her medical diagnosis and consult with doctors.
That gesture of signing the form is, in itself, a powerful and original one, since it seems prescient that only some kind of crisis or catastrophe could now raise the stakes of the romantic comedy enough to maintain the warm and convivial mood of the abbreviated opening act. Given that the feel-good atmosphere of the romcom was partly about precluding even the possibility of a world founded on precarity, there’s something powerful about seeing that precarity and contingency conflating itself with the key gesture of romantic communion and consolidation that ends up shaping the rest of the film. At the same time, this scenario manages to evoke a situation that seems to be quite common in an age of social media – looking back on the digital record of a relationship (romantic or otherwise) as soon as it has started – resulting in a strange scene in which Kumail finds himself going through all the objects in Emily’s room the first night she’s been admitted as if poring over a relic of the distant past. On the one hand, it’s hard not to feel that this is a bit like going through someone’s Facebook page three months after friending them to scrutinise all the shared experiences, but at the same time there is also a kind of longing for an escape from that digital scrutiny, in the sheer tactility and relish with which Kumail peruses all of Emily’s objects. In either case, the screenplay manages to take the pervasive defeatism of contemporary romantic comedy – the sense that romcoms are over almost as soon as they have begun – and turn it into the central premise of the extended second act.
This second act takes up the majority of the film, and largely revolves around Kumail’s burgeoning relationship with Beth and Terry, Emily’s parents, who are initially quite hostile to him (or at least sceptical of him), but who gradually come around to him, and even embrace him, once he makes it clear that he is determined to remain at the hospital. What ensues is a romantic comedy in which the two romantic leads barely spend any time around each other – or at least any conscious time – with even the abbreviated third act focusing as much on their remote communication as their direct physical contact. Instead, Nanjiani and Gordon focus on Kumail’s increasing domestic proximity to Emily’s parents, across a series of terrific set pieces that encompass him going back with them to her apartment, their decision to attend one of his stand-up performances for a distraction and, finally, Terry crashing at Kumail’s apartment after an argument with Beth, sleeping a couple of feet away from where Emily lay the first time she came over. By the end, Kumail has gone from a stranger who rejected their daughter to a way for the parents to mediate their relationship with each other, and with Emily, resulting in a tremulous conversation with Beth when Emily finally wakes up: “It’s funny to think we could go through one of the most intense experiences of our lives and then never see each other again.” “Maybe…but I hope not.”
In other words, Kumail becomes embedded in Beth’s family only after breaking up with her, and only after she has descended into her coma, making for a film that has a rich taste for the ways in which romance itself is embedded in broader kinds of attachment and wider affective communities. In contrast to the splendid isolation and (often) irritating exceptionality of traditional romcom couples, Kumail comes to inhabit the space around Emily, and the thick textures that constitute her lifeworld, at the very moment at which the continuation of their romance seems most at stake. From an opening that initially promises an allegory about Beth coming to terms with Kumail’s family, and their belief in arranged marriage, the focus abruptly shifts to the romance between Kumail and Beth’s parents, a shift that in its own way captures what is at stake in him becoming a part of her world more than any more melodramatic focus on the institution of arranged marriage ever could. That’s not to say, of course, that Nanjiani shies away from contemplating his Pakistani and Islamic heritage, since the film handles his family’s discovery, and his own response to the prospect of being excommunicated, with warmth, dignity and good humour. But The Big Sick never takes upon itself the self-serious burden of “educating” the audience about Pakistani culture – and thereby exoticising Pakistani culture – with Kamail’s one-man show about “life in Pakistan” effectively parodying the film that this so easily could have become.
Even more incredible than the gesture of this sustained second act is the dexterity with which Nanjiani, Gordon and Showalter pull it off, by way of an atmosphere that is perpetually poised at the very cusp between pathos and comedy, and in which the pathos and comedy actually intensify by virtue of their proximity to each other. From the trailer, I was afraid that some of these sequences might be a bit schmaltzy, or that the film might tip from comedy to tragedy too vertiginously, but, instead, the funnier it becomes, the more moving it becomes, and vice versa. In fact, the trailer doesn’t do the film justice generally, since for the most part the screenplay subsists on character-based comedy and one-liners that only make sense in the context of escalating conversations and sustained set pieces (not unlike a stand-up repertoire in that respect). In particular, The Big Sick manages to build all kinds of wonderful observational flourishes from time spent in and around hospital but without ever feeling as if it is using sickness as a mere opportunity for observational comedy either. A lot of that comes down to Nanjiani’s comic style, since he’s brilliant at riffing on serious moments without ever feeling too knowing, partly because his mode of address often consists of simply asking questions or requesting more information in such a way as to draw out the absurdity of the seriousness with which he is confronted. It’s hard not to see in that style a parody of the way Hollywood tends to understand the Indian and Pakistani “type” – gatherers of information, whether behind the register at a convenience store or at a remote call centre – although Nanjiani’s comedy never feels simply reactionary either, or anything less than the worldview of one very idiosyncratic and original individual.
As the infection gradually works its way through Emily’s body, then, and the doctors find themselves blocked in every effort they make to contain it, the film subtly – almost subliminally – reaches a crisis of both comedy and pathos that precludes any straightforward conclusion once Emily finally wakes up. For that reason, the last act of the film almost plays as a revision of the first act, partly because the coma has left Emily severely weakened, in need of sustained physical therapy, and with a different orientation to her body. If the second act punctures the splendid isolation of romcom personalities, then this final act punctures the splendid isolation of romcom bodies, as Emily’s body is embedded into her family and circle of friends in a new way, demanding a collective responsibility that initially prevents Kumail sequestering it into the romantic spaces of the first act. As a result, when the romantic rapprochement does come, in the form of the final two scenes, it is so fleeting and stylised that it almost feels like an afterthought. Yet in some sense the romantic rapprochement has already come, with Kumail inhabiting the spaces and textures around Emily more comprehensively than he ever could during their romance itself, and finding the courage to negotiate between his love for her and the spaces and textures in his own life in the process as well. And in that dialogue lies the beautiful dexterity of the film, as well as its own beautiful dialogue between the past, present and future of romantic comedy, in the best vehicle for Nanjiani’s comedy, and his best introduction to the wider world of moviegoers, that I could have ever possibly imagined.