The Oberlin Review

Nanjiani’s Big Sick Defies Genre Conventions

Jordan Joseph, Contributing Writer

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The Big Sick, which trailers present as a sickly-sweet romantic comedy with a Pakistani-American protagonist, is currently one of the highest grossing independent films of the year — and for good reason. While the trailer might draw viewers into the theater, beneath its tightly-packaged exterior, The Big Sick is so much more.

The film, a mostly autobiographical narrative written by Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon, follows Kumail (played by Nanjiani) as he reconciles budding comedic fame with getting older. Kumail comes from a traditional Pakistani family that expects him to marry a Pakistani woman, so Kumail’s mother sets off to find a wife for her son in her own way. Much to Kumail’s chagrin, this involves inviting Pakistani women who “just happened to be in the neighborhood” to every family dinner.

Despite his familial turmoil, Kumail still manages to meet Emily (Zoe Kazan), a spunky heckler at one of his shows. She and Kumail hit it off immediately.

After the show, Emily casts aside her heckler facade, and she and Kumail hook up. While Emily believes afterward that they’ll part ways forever, Kumail reacts — as he does throughout the film to tense situations — with humor, asking: “Can we have an awkward hug before we part forever?” But as Emily tries to take her leave and call an Uber, Kumail’s phone dings. He is her driver.

As their relationship deepens, Kumail and Emily finally cast off their disdain for labels and begin dating. Of course, before long, Emily discovers Kumail’s secret. One night, after Kumail leaves the room, she decides to peek inside a mysterious object that’s puzzled her throughout their relationship: Kumail’s cigar box. Expecting romantic pictures of the two of them, Emily is woefully disappointed when she finds the box contains nothing of the sort. Instead, it’s chock-full of headshots of parent-approved Pakistani “dates.” Emily, furious, asks him whether he can “even imagine a world in which [they] end up together.” Kumail is at a loss, and Emily, understandably upset, storms off.

Then Emily gets sick.

Besides demonstrating lovers’ quarrels and cultural differences, what The Big Sick achieves after Emily falls ill is nothing short of magnificent. While Emily is in a medically-induced coma, Kumail is forced to be a better boyfriend than he ever was when she was well. He deftly navigates all of the customary relationship hurdles, bonding with Emily’s family and reassuring his, but in his own deadpan, comedic way.

The Big Sick maintains a delicate balance between drama and comedy. Through the laughter and the tears, the film never pulls punches. It engages with some of the toughest situations in life — familial discord and the grave illness of a loved one — but it does so tastefully and, at times, humorously. This balance is what sustains the film. For instance, when Emily’s father (played by Ray Romano) asks a bewildered Kumail, “What’s your stance [on 9/11]?” Kumail spins his response into arguably the most memorable quip of the film. I say without hesitation that before The Big Sick, I’d never seen a film and left with such a bittersweet feeling of sadness mixed with joy.

The Big Sick’s other major strength is its encapsulation of the real Kumail and his relationship with his now-wife Emily Gordon. Since Kumail co-wrote the script for the film with Gordon, the finished product comes across as uniquely authentic. There are no instances in which a white writer is attempting to grasp at the thoughts of a Pakistani immigrant or his family, because it is Kumail who tells the story in his own voice, his own way.

This film delivers clean, honest fun and romance without overdoing it, which has been exceedingly rare in the years since The Hangover and The 40-Year-Old-Virgin. From the hilarious quips to the brutally honest stand-up routine that Kumail performs during Emily’s illness, a more avant-garde rom-com just doesn’t exist.

Whether you are seeking a bone-shaking laugh or a cathartic cry, The Big Sick is the relatable, flat-out charming movie you’ve been looking for. There are any number of reasons to see The Big Sick, but what it boils down to is that the writing, acting, and story are so damn good you’re going to wish that you’d brought your whole family. And when you realize you left them at home, you can go back to the theater and see it again. It’s that good.

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