Despite including a different one right there in the name, I think the closest genre cousin to romantic comedy is horror.
In the most general sense, they carry a low reputation. They’re usually reduced to their chief exports – blood and sap, respectively. Both are hopelessly plagued by derivative works that mistake “homage” for “rip-off.” These genres pluck at primal notes – fear and love. Difficult notes to play perfectly, but easy enough to string together in cheap melodies. Jump-scares and attractive people giving each other flowers elicit a response, even if that response isn’t earned or long-lasting. Both genres have an overwhelming body of fans who eat up the copies-of-copies with as much vigor as the top-shelf stuff, often down to the fleeting high of those elusive notes.
And about once a year, twice if it’s a leap, a horror movie or romantic comedy comes out, shows more creativity than the average example, and is deemed transcendent of the genre by folks who don’t particularly like the genre in the first place.
This happens more often with horror – thinkpieces will invent entire subgenres like “anti-horror” to avoid admitting they just watched a well-made movie about a sexually transmitted demon – but once in a while a romantic comedy will get the same treatment.
It’s hard to find a review for The Big Sick that doesn’t compare it to the last elevated romantic comedy with cries of “Smarter Than…” and “The Best Since…” I’ve seen a few calling it the herald of a new kind of romantic comedy. They really mean “good,” but few thinkpieces are ever that honest with themselves.
Inevitably, this hyperbolic response writes checks the movies in question can never cash.
The Big Sick cashes those checks. The Big Sick cut me deep.
It starts with a standard, if refreshingly handled, romantic comedy set-up. Kumail Nanjiani, played to perfection by Kumail Nanjiani, fatefully crosses paths with Emily, an impossibly charming Zoe Kazan. Or rather, she cuts in front of his after heckling him in a positive way during a stand-up set. He finds her after the show, sparks fly and within the hour they’re watching Night of the Living Dead (farewell, George Romero) and shacking up. Neither is exactly looking for a relationship, but they can’t help themselves.
Enter Kumail’s Pakistani family, who want nothing more (and nothing less) than for him to marry a Pakistani woman of their choosing. Every time he visits for dinner, his mother “casually” wonders who else could be at the door and brings in the latest potential suitor like a football recruiter trying to woo Kumail’s talents to their defensive line. Some of them are alarming – screaming “The Truth is Out There” because The X-Files is Kumail’s favorite show – and some anxious – just as tired of arranged marriages as he is – but they all leave behind a picture of themselves just in case.
It’s not long before Emily finds these pictures, kept like unwanted baseball cards in a cigar box, and the uncomfortable truth comes out – his family will never accept her, and he knows it.
So they part ways until the title explains itself and Emily is hospitalized with a strange, hungry disease that forces her into a medically induced coma. When her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, both award-worthy) fly in, they find doctors running frantic tests and Kumail, the ex she told them so much about.
For most of its running time, the central romance in The Big Sick is sidelined entirely, with one half of it confined unconsciously to a hospital bed. But it’s to the filmmakers great credit that you almost don’t notice.
What The Big Sick handles better than so many copy-and-paste romantic comedies is love. Historically and sociologically one of the messiest things in existence, love is too often treated as a conclusion. How do you know a bad romantic comedy is over? When the leads find love. It’s like the Ark of the Covenant without the face-melting; once you find it, the Nazis lose and the credits roll.
But it’s not a MacGuffin. You can’t track it down, put it in a glass box and sit there for the rest of time admiring it.
The Big Sick shows love as something most people generally trip over, falling into it with about as much grace as falling into an open manhole. Kumail is surrounded by very different philosophies of love and very different stages of it. His parents and culture believe love is handed to you in the form of a compatible, pre-screened significant other of breeding age. Emily’s parents met by means of their own romantic comedy – her family didn’t like him, so he stuck around until they did – but they don’t sleep in the same bed anymore. Even their more traditional notion of love got restless, wandered afield.
It’s a threadbare cliche anymore, but the oldest lesson in the world is “love conquers all.”
The Big Sick doesn’t disagree, but adds that it’s also really inconvenient and rarely neat.
Aided in part by the fact that it’s a true story, director Michael Showalter (half the brains behind Wet Hot American Summer) and writers Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon (the “real” Emily) render The Big Sick painfully authentic. Any time the movie sets up a romantic comedy trapping (the combative in-laws that come around, giving that heartfelt gift that rights all wrongs, the impassioned speech about love by a parent), The Big Sick refuses to deliver the punchline. The in-laws don’t invite everyone over for dinner. The gift means more to the audience than the one receiving it. “Love isn’t easy. That’s why they call it love,” says Ray Romano, before immediately admitting his attempted inspirational quote isn’t particularly inspirational and doesn’t make a lick of sense. At one point a stuffed giraffe is bought and never mentioned again, a nonsequitor anyone well-versed in romantic comedies would know just had to be significant.
But it’s never too clever for its own good. The Big Sick subverts plenty of well-worn plot devices and moments, but not in a critical way. It doesn’t attempt to distance itself from its genre; a lot of the pre-sickness flirtation scenes play out in a profile two-shot that’s almost short-hand for THEY LIKE EACH OTHER. It’s a wonderfully touching romantic comedy that just happens to include the funniest 9/11 joke ever told.
Since it is a true story and the lead characters are actually the writers, the ending is already somewhat assured. Though that doesn’t sap any of its potency. By the end credits, when we finally see pictures of the real Emily and real Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick makes it clear that love, inconvenient and messy, is out there. People trip over it all the time. Even if it’s sometimes complicated by distance, culture or grievous medical trauma. It’s never on-schedule. The planned perfect moments never are. Sometimes it hurts.
It’ll never be easy, but that’s the point. It’s worth fighting for. That’s why they call it love.
And that still doesn’t make any sense.
Go see The Big Sick if you have a heart or something like it.