Monday, July 17, 2017

Michael Showalter | The Big Sick

comedy of echoes
by Douglas Messerli

Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon (screenplay), Michael Showalter (director) The Big Sick (2017)

Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s new film, The Big Sick might easily be dismissed as a tender romantic comedy.  Yet, in its quirky turns and characters, it is something far more—and different.

First of all, Nanjiani (played by the screenwriter himself) and Emily (performed by Zoe Kazan) are not just any couple, but represent a Pakistani immigrant—and not just any immigrant, but a would-be stand-up comedian supporting himself by driving for Uber (positions, he jokes, lower in his family’s evaluation than being a member of ISIS)—and a “down-home” North Carolina girl—who also defies any type-casting, by being a divorcee who has gone back to college to become a clinical psychology therapist. Emily’s parents, moreover, are a strange mix of a university mathematician, Terry (Ray Romano), and a native North Carolinian, with a convincing accent, who met her husband in her job as a local waitress, Beth (Holly Hunter). Kumail’s middle-class family, seeming to have found the American Dream, on the other hand, are faithful Muslims who challenge their younger son by insisting he grow a beard and marry, by parental arrangement, a Pakistani girl.

      The set-up of polar opposites who nonetheless fall in love, of course, is nothing new in such a genre, as admirers of  any Woody Allen movie (Annie Hall in particular) or of 2002’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Yet, by comparison, these films seem like ridiculous exaggerations as opposed to the quiet decency of all parties in The Big Sick.

      Yes, the Gordons are at first hostile to Kumail, despite the fact that, by pretending he is the sick Emily’s husband, signs the legal form that putting her into an medically induced coma, saves Emily’s life. But he has deeply hurt their daughter due to his passivity about his own mother’s continued efforts to marry him off to Pakistani women and his own fears of being ostracized by his family if he were to marry outside the faith. However, when, even after the Gordons tell him he is no longer needed at the hospital vigils, he remains, they not only begin to accept him but stand up for him when he is heckled by a bigoted audience member at the comedy club where he regularly appears (which they have insisted upon attending just for a release from their dour duties). And after a drunken night with Beth and a later man-to-man confession from Terry, Kumail is not only accepted by them but becomes true friends with Emily’s parents. And, it is primarily through that acceptance that he truly realizes how much he truly loves Emily and finally is willing to stand up to his own family.

      Yes, at first, his own family members behave despicably, refusing to even talk with him (my own parents did the same to me when I announced that Howard and I were in a relationship), but by film’s end they too begin to reconnect, bearing him a gift of his favorite food as Kumail prepares to move to New York; and even if his mother remains in the car refusing to say a word, his father begs him to text them when he arrives in New York, making it clear that they ultimately will welcome him back into their hearts.

      In short, this comedy is less about the differences of the romantic couples and their familial backgrounds, and is more about the differences of the human heart. One of the most profound moments in the film is spoken by Terry who, inexplicably, complains that love is so difficult that that is why it is called “love,” a statement which, although seemingly logically meaningless, makes perfect sense to anyone who is or has ever been in love. The word itself is an incomprehensible thing, a nearly meaningless word, no matter the language. People who cannot even imagine that they might care and “love” for each other find themselves in the strange position of doing precisely that. And in this film, unlike the ones I previously mentioned, the emphasis is not on the differences of those who love, but, despite those superficial differences, focuses on their deep similarities.

      In large, what saves this gentle comedy from being just another “rom-com” is its full acceptance of the human experience. Even when Kumail admits that he no longer prays (five times a day as he explains in one of his skits), it is not with a sense of rejection, but one of questioning: I no longer know whether or not I believe, whether or not I am Muslin, he admits. And even the painful encounters with the countless girls who on weekly family dinners “just happen” to stop by (sometimes with parents in tow), results, at one point, in Kumail meeting a Pakistani girl who might have very well have made a good match with this Americanized man—except that he now realizes that he is in love with Emily, echoing Terry’s one-night stand with another woman which, he claims, only proves his love for his wife. (Sean Connery argued the same thing, moviegoers might recall, in Willard Carroll’s memorable romantic comedy, Playing by Heart).

     In fact, one might almost describe The Big Sick as a “comedy of echoes,” the comedy of the plot paralleling the comic routines of the film’s hero. Throughout the film, Kumail uses his comic routines as well as his one-man show to help explain Pakistani culture to his American audiences, which is echoed in Beth’s own, far more intense, “standing up” for Kumail when he is heckled. At one point the near humorless Terry tells a bad joke about a giraffe entering a bar and saying “the high balls are on me”; later Kumail brings Emily a stuffed giraffe as a gift. I’ve already mentioned the echo of Kumail’s seeming unfaithfulness to Emily as being repeated by her father’s confession of his wrong-doing to his wife.

     At the end of the movie, with Kumail now performing with slightly better success, in New York, he is heckled by a call out by Emily, repeating their very first encounter, and the two engage in a conversation that repeats word for word what happened at that previous event. In short, they start all over again, but this time with the knowledge of what the reverberation of the echo mean. These lovers and their families, fortunately, listen to what the echo of their hearts finally tells them, and restore the mistakes in loving that they have previously made.

Los Angeles, July 17, 2017


  1. I thought I would hate this movie but was surprised by how much I liked it; my feelings about why are similar to yours.