I enjoyed Kumail Nanjiani in Bad Milo, Portlandia, Key and Peele and The Grinder so when I saw the previews for The Big Sick, despite the fact that it was being promoted as a rom-com, I was willing to give it a chance. I have noticed that films about comedians are usually the most depressing films ever, but it isn’t often that Pakistani Americans get to star in the film so I continued to move forward. When it was compared to Master of None and Meet the Patels in negative terms, I paused. I have not seen Master of None yet, but it is in the queue, I have only heard amazing things about the Netflix comedy, and I’ve loved Aziz Ansari since Parks & Recreation. I did see Meet the Patels. The documentary felt as if it was a grand financial and psychological exploitation of his parents, his ex-girlfriend and all of his prospective wives to conflate self-promotion with overcoming his cowardice.
The Big Sick is not Meet the Patels. Kumail, the character, is living two lives, and the only link between these lives is being a comedian, but he is unable to live fully in either world. At his family’s home, he only pretends to be a devout Muslim and does not initiate contact with other Pakistani women, but he also does not tell his parents to stop doing it. In real life, he may be a good comedian, but because he is not living fully, his career has stalled, his one-man show is like a fifth grade school project and his love life is a series of one-night stands. Then he meets a woman, Emily, and they both are completely attracted to the other despite it being incredibly inconvenient for different reasons for both of them. He tries to move on and realizes that he can’t when she almost dies.
What makes The Big Sick amazing is the idea that none of this may have happened if she did not get sick. Superficially this plot device sounds a bit manic pixie girl, but Emily does not exist solely to make Kumail a better person. Even when Kumail changes, which he inevitably does because in real life, we know that he marries her, she is not there ready to just take him back. The film definitely gives its audience the impression that she had a full life before meeting him (her parents bringing her childhood quilt or the maturity of her apartment), and she had a full life without him even if we don’t see it. She is a catalyst, but she does not exist to be one.
Because Kumail is faced with the prospect of a world without her in it as opposed to him not having her in his life (but having her at least exist as a potential “what-if”), he is forced to see the ridiculous chasm between who he really is and how he can’t be that person in either world. Ian McKellan said, “Personally, coming out was one of the most important things I’ve ever done, lifting from my shoulders the millstone of lies that I hadn’t even realized that I was carrying.” Kumail has to come out and unite his fractured identity because going through this crisis is already breaking him. She makes him more Kumail than he ever was before by forcing him to see the fractures that always existed. He must face his personal apocalypse and take personal inventory of what does and does not matter in his life. The Big Sick is the story of how he fully embraces and heals his identity.
I particularly enjoyed how The Big Sick devoted a moment for Kumail to address his lack of faith. Particularly in a time of crisis, you figure out what you really believe and stop going through the motions, particularly if they are not doing anything for you. It becomes essential for him to admit that when it was time to rely on his faith, there was nothing there. The film leaves with that ambiguity. He may be an atheist, an agnostic or a Muslim, but he is aware that he does not know, and that is more important than appearing pious to satisfy others. God does not just exist as a filial duty. God should mean something personally to a person, and if God does not, it is important to be aware of it.
The film creates a world where Kumail is able to imagine a world with Emily’s parents as his family in case he is right and will not be able to rely on his birth family. I think the film does a superlative job of capturing the awkwardness of meeting people at the worst time in their lives and how quickly forced intimacy creates bonds that would ordinarily not exist. The parents, played by the magnificent Holly Hunter and Parenthood’s Ray Romano, are not a cinematic invention of in laws who are perfect and instinctually disapproving. They have cause to not like Kumail as well as their own unconscious bias, but are also forced to deal with him because the crisis has interrupted their own drama and having a third person around, even a guy who dumped your daughter and presumptuously has been acting as your daughter’s health care proxy, makes sense. My favorite scenes in the movie were with Kumail and either or both parents, particularly stress eating.
It is impossible to discuss The Big Sick without dealing with intersectional issues of gender and racism. There is a magnificent scene where Hunter goes mama bear on one of Kumail’s harassers. While it is in line with her character, is it also a useful way to project her anger at her husband and exorcise her frustration over her daughter’s situation and/or overcompensation for her husband’s ridiculous 9-11 remark?
Many of The Big Sick’s detractors complain that this film is like most films where becoming who you is usually equated with becoming American, i.e. dating a white woman. I think that it is fair to at least discuss this issue because there is hard data elicited from online dating sites that it is fairly easy to predict demographically whom people will find attractive and usually it is not women of color. We don’t exist in a society divorced from the images of mainstream beauty standards of what we find attractive. I think the film did a great job of giving one of Kumail’s most personable Pakistani marital prospects a voice to express her anger at being put in yet another situation where she is told that she is awesome, but not for him. He wasted her time. He did not choose her. Even unintended, she was hurt. We need more movies where the women get to take center stage and express what it is like not to be desired and be perfect. For example, the most interesting part of Meet the Patels was the sister/cameraman. I also don’t think that this tension of a societal beauty standard that adheres to white supremacy is incompatible with the fact that Kumail actually loves a specific person who happens to be white. Both can exist simultaneously. Did society play some role in that love? How much? I have no idea how we answer those questions, but you can’t help whom you love. He did not choose the second white woman that he had a one-night stand with. He chose a comatose Emily and had an inconvenient sexual attraction to her. Love is sadly not fair. I am comfortable with a space that equally expresses anger and embraces love.
I like to play a game when watching movies to see who I would be in a movie. I am black and biracial. I would literally be Emily’s best friend calling him, name not remembered, telling him to go to the hospital. I would also possibly be the wingman for the second white woman that he had a one-night stand with, but we don’t know much about her. Did you notice that the white women in The Big Sick had black best friends? It is an accurate depiction. People may not remember our name, but we are somewhere in the edges of every gathering, but not necessarily a part of the group. We are not directly addressed. My mom would literally be the encouraging nurse who helps him make the right medical decision. The one guy on drugs is black. Really? Well, he is also the most famous black actor in the film, and he is an entertainer so I will withhold my side-eye….for now.
The Big Sick was a way better movie than I expected it to be. I appreciate how Nanjiani and Emily Gordon wrote a film about their lives and defied genre expectations by somehow making an inherently maudlin subject entertaining.
Sarah G. Vincent is an infovore who is originally from NYC and has lived in Massachusetts since 1993. She received an A.B., cum laude, in History and Film Studies from Harvard University in 1997 and received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000, where she was also an editor and arts reporter at the Crimson/FM and worked at the Harvard Film Archives. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she published “The Cultural Context of the Shopping Mall: Tension Between The Patron’s Right of Access and the Owner’s Right to Exclude.” She is in a committed, exclusive spiritual relationship with the Triune God and for more information, directs readers to look at the Apostle’s Creed.