One from the Stomach
'I think the title of this film is very off-putting,' said a stranger behind me in the cinema queue, speaking to her son.
I turned round and frowned at her. 'What, you don't like France?' I asked. (I can be very socially inappropriate sometimes.)
She did an actual double-take at me. 'I didn't mean Dunkirk. I was talking about The Big Sick.'
'Ohhhh,' I said, feigning sudden comprehension. Needless to say, we did not speak again.
Yes, it's that time of year again, when cinema screens are ram-jammed with coldly calculated kid's film franchise extensions and noble British tommies shivering on a beach while trying to work out exactly what's going on with the chronology. You're really reliant on some high-quality counter-programming cutting through (if you want to have an even vaguely rewarding time at the cinema, anyway), and luckily just this has arrived in the form of Michael Showalter's The Big Sick.
Or should that really be Kumail Nanjiani's The Big Sick? It's hard to think of another recent film which is so obviously personal, for all that it is part of that most peculiar of genres, the romantic comedy.
No, seriously – what is the function of romantic comedies? I get the point of full-on comedies, for they are there to lift your spirits and make you laugh. Dramas are there to engage your intellect and emotions, action movies provide a basic adrenaline thrill, horror movies play with the darker end of the emotion spectrum, and proper science fiction stimulates the intellect. And so on, and so on. But what's going on with rom-coms? Who sits down to decide what film to watch and says 'You know what, I wouldn't mind feeling a bit more romantic tonight'? Either you're feeling romantic or you're not, and if you're not feeling that way, nothing is less likely to kindle the flame of love than watching two beautiful young people play games for ninety minutes before inevitably ending up together. Part of me suspects this is all about reinforcing social and cultural norms, given that our society is largely glued together by the notion of romantic love, and that going to see a rom-com provides a sense of affirmation, that there is some objective truth to this notion. (Which, you know, there may be.)
Some of this kind of gets obliquely addressed in The Big Sick. Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani plays Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani (it will be interesting to see if his performance wins any acting awards), who meets therapist-in-training Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his gigs. Neither of them is looking for a serious commitment, and yet there is a spark between them, and a relationship develops almost without either of them willing it.
However, in Kumail's case, the aversion to commitment is basically because his family are still deeply attached to the tradition of arranged marriages, with a seemingly-endless stream of unattached Pakistani women happening to drop by at family meals. Kumail doesn't want to get kicked out of the family for admitting to a relationship with a white non-Muslim girl, and this inevitably causes tension between Emily and him.
And then something happens. Does this constitute a spoiler or not? I can't remember if it's in the trailer or not, but it's in all the promotional material that I've seen, and the film is called The Big Sick, after all. Emily is admitted to hospital after what seems to be a bout of flu causes her to faint, and ends up in a coma. Despite their relationship being in limbo, Kumail finds himself hanging around the hospital and bonding with Emily's parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).
This is a rom-com, so you probably don't need me to tell you that this crisis forces Kumail to think hard about what is really important to him – is it keeping his parents happy, even if that means living a lie, or spending his life with Emily? The charm and the achievement of the film, which is the same as that of any watchable romantic comedy, is that you are engaged and entertained even as the story proceeds towards a throroughly predictable conclusion (Nanjiani and the real-life Emily have been married for nearly a decade and co-wrote the script together).
As I get older and become more aware of my neuro-atypicality, trips to watch rom-coms increasingly feel like anthropological expeditions to observe the peculiar behaviour of remote tribespeople, and yet I found The Big Sick to be rather delightful and almost completely winning. Much of the credit for this must go to Nanjiani himself, who gives a brilliant deadpan comedy performance. It probably helped my connection to him that Nanjiani is no stranger to the less-mainstream areas of culture himself, being a noted X Files fan (which resulted in him actually appearing in the good episode of season 10). That said, at various points in the film, Kumail breaks off from watching Night of the Living Dead and The Abominable Dr Phibes to engage in intimate relations, which I can't imagine ever doing myself, so this is obviously a relative thing. (What kind of person takes a girl home and then suggests they watch an old Vincent Price horror movie together, anyway? Ahem.)
Then again, this is a film with a strong ensemble performance, from the various members of Kumail and Emily's extended families (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff play Kumail's parents), and also the various other up-and-coming comedians Kumail hangs around with. The film never puts a foot wrong when it comes to its frequent shifts in tone, and never feels self-consciously heavy when dealing with ostensibly serious topics like 'the Pakistani-American experience' or 'coping with a loved one in a coma' (the movie resists making the obvious Smiths reference).
In fact, although on paper the movie looks like an inventive mash-up of the Cross-Cultural Romance (with Various Attendant Issues) and Medical Crisis Romance story-forms, it doesn't really feel like either of them – it feels heartfelt and genuine rather than forced and formulaic. None of the major characters is wholly flawless or an irredeemably bad person – they're just recognisable people, with rather messy lives they are doing their best to cope with.
I laughed a lot all the way through The Big Sick (there was also, admittedly, a sharp intake of breath at the point where someone tells Kumail that 'The X Files is not a good show') – but it also snuck in some genuinely moving moments, which took me entirely by surprise. Normally I would be inclined to speculate as to extent to which real life has been rewritten to suit the demands of a standard three-act dramatic structure, but the film is so funny, so warm, and so sincerely truthful that I'm inclined to give it a pass on this. This is a charming and immensely likeable film, however you feel about rom-coms in general; highly recommended.