Originally published on July 17th, 2017
How many of you have once wished that your life was just like a movie? Odds are, quite a few of you, myself included. It’s not too uncommon to conjure such thoughts, especially during your adolescence, dreaming of something much better than either middle or high school. It wouldn’t be so surprising if The Big Sick co-writers and husband-wife tandem Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon fantasized about their own lives being a film to mold as particularly theirs, though surely either could hardly imagine the primary event connecting them both that would inspire them to turn that fantasy into reality.
As has been well-publicized, The Big Sick is based upon Kumail and Emily’s real-life romance and the medically-induced coma Emily was put under when she got the big bug. With some minor story alterations to make it more properly cinematic, as well as respect the emotional significance of the moment, this Sundance darling is one that examines the complexities of love when tested with a life-death scenario, cultural differences and, perhaps most significantly, the difficulty in knowing one’s identity when being brought up to observe one culture, but growing up in a world that’s entirely different.
Don’t get me wrong, Nanjiani and Gordon masterfully capture the dueling emotions of the moment by completely avoiding a tonal whirlwind and creating a world that’s no less chaotic, but humbly grounded in truth. That particular skillfulness, however, isn’t what makes this movie’s star shine the brightest. Decades of rampant Islamophobia in Western civilization have been the unfortunate impetus to begin using media, whether it’s satirical late-night news shows or films like this one, to normalize Middle Eastern cultures in the faces of fear-mongered populations trained to see anything Islam-related as fundamentalist or extremist.
Not only does it give The Big Sick greater purpose than most rom-coms, for obvious reasons, but also it gives those of us unfamiliar with Islamic traditions a window through which we can better understand the people who celebrate them and are raised under them. We can find small kernels of shared emotion and experience, like the fear of alienating family and loved ones, without wholly likening our perspective to another’s. Though the cross-cultural dynamic is sometimes used as a different stand-in for similar genre plot devices, it never feels like it’s being reduced for that purpose, but perhaps occasionally bending it to the will of convention is part of the normalization process.
Even outside of this portion of the narrative, the film is still steeped in modern romantic comedy tropes, and yet rises above them all with its infectious appeal. Nanjiani and co-star Zoe Kazan are effectively charming together onscreen and hardly miss a beat with one another. When Kazan’s Emily is in a coma, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, respectively playing Emily’s parents Terry and Beth, easily pick up the slack and, particularly in Hunter’s case, bring the picture an extra source of vitality and charisma. Every performer’s command of Nanjiani and Gordon’s writing makes the humor heartier, and the sadness and anxiety more honest and chilling.
Altogether, the material that’s been crafted is incredibly involving for a subject so specific it must have come from reality. The plainly cinematic elements Nanjiani and Gordon have admitted to are practically an afterthought in the grand scheme of things, because not in many moons has a romantic comedy been so thoroughly captivating and satisfyingly bittersweet. In fact, it goes to show that if any particular film is eye-catching enough, then archetypal beats and aesthetics aren’t just accepted, they’re welcomed. Few films and filmmakers have the gall, much less the skill, to pull off such a deft balance.
Whether you’re seeing it this summer or were lucky enough to brave Park City, Utah’s bitter cold this past January, The Big Sick is an undeniably warm and fuzzy film with a swift, thought-provoking undercurrent that sets it above the rest of its peers. One thing the best of movies do is make its audience, as the great Billy Joel once sang, forget about life for a while. This film manages to accomplish that, but also remind us of existing prejudices and that we mustn’t judge different cultures without understanding them.
Not to mention, it appropriately sheds light on this scary new drug that kids in the Midwest are starting to get hooked on; it’s called ‘cheese.’