Movie Review: The Big Sick

Over the course of this decade, South Asian Americans have risen to prominence in the entertainment industry. TV shows like Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None along with films like Meet the Patels are just a few examples of the South Asian American experience being retold through pop culture.

The Big Sick is the latest of this trend. Directed by Micheal Showalter, The film is based on the real-life “how-we-met” story of actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, producer and comedy writer Emily Gordan. The screenplay was written by the couple, giving them an opportunity to unveil their emotional vulnerabilities and intimate secrets.

Kumail Nanjiani played himself as the film’s lead character. In the film, Kumail is a Pakistani-American uber driver who moonlights as a stand-up comedian, performing at local clubs as he awaits his big break.  He has an unexpected encounter with a heckler with whom he later initiates a relationship. Meanwhile, Kumail’s parents, Azmet, played by Anupam Kher, and Sharmeen, played by Zenobia Shroff, tirelessly arrange prospective Pakistani Muslim brides for their son, to Kumail’s disdain. To avoid an unpleasant confrontation with his parents, Kumail entertains their wishes.

An unexpected infection forces Emily into a medical induced coma. During that tumultuous time, Kumail bonds with Emily’s North Carolinan parents, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. Throughout this series of events, Kumail learns more about himself, enabling him to  grow as a person who lives on his own terms.

The Big Sick is ultimately about a conflicted individual who reluctantly leads a double life to appease his parents while simultaneously attempting fulfilling his own ambitions. In his parents’ eyes, Kumail is a devout Muslim and, apparently, the most eligible bachelor of Chicago’s Pakistani community. However, Kumail, as an aspiring stand-up comic, is attracted towards a path not taken.

Kumail’s story is the story of countless second-generation Americans who are forced to tread the line between respecting old-world traditions and embracing new-world individualism. And similarly to most second-generation Americans, Kumail awkwardly stumbles as he tries desperately to balance both worlds.

In contrast to Kumail’s traditional Pakistan Muslim family, Emily’s folks are an all-American smorgasbord. Her father, Terry, is a mathematics professor originally from New York City (evident by Ray Romano’s distinctive Queens drawl!) while her mother, Beth, is a red-blooded southerner who comes from a family of hunters. Emily simultaneously represents tradition and modernity, north and south, urban and rural, intellectual and practical. She has the quirkiness of a manic pixie dream girl and yet she’s manages to remain grounded and sensible. Emily represents the ideal balance which Kumail is attempting to achieve. And perhaps, it could be the underlying reason why he is attracted to her.

Kumail mopes throughout the duration of the film with a self-pitying demeanor. However, everyone he encounters, whether it be Emily, Emily’s parents, and even his parents refuse to sympathise with his angst. Even Khadijah, one of his potential suitors, calls him out and implores him to “stop feeling sorry for (himself)”. Azmet later accuses his son of leading everyone on with no plans to make any commitment. Azmet points out that Kumail is “not being fair to (his) mother, fair to Khadijah or even fair to that girl (Emily)”. This portion of the film demonstrate that while the story is being retold through Kumail’s point of view, he is also capable of being self-critical, indicative of his personal growth throughout the ordeal.

The Big Sick has been accused by some critics of being formulaic. While one can easily grow weary of the unoriginal recipes with which romcoms are cooked, it is worth noting that commonly-used tropes can be utilized to appeal to our yearning for familiarity. 

The Big Sick follows the typical romcom formula: 1) Boy meets Girls 2) Boy bangs girl 3) Boy and girl gradually become romantically overwhelmed by each other 4) Boy and Girl break up 5)Boy and Girl reconcile. 

However, using that simple recipe as a framework, the filmmakers managed to sprinkle hints of various exotic ingredients to spice up the resulting dish. 

One feature I appreciate from this film is its willingness to explore the perspective of first-generation immigrants. Azmet and Sharmeem are not necessarily regressive bigots who only seek to isolate their son from modernity. Azmet is not some turban-wearing, chauvinistic Muslim sheikh who forces a burka-clad Sharmeen into submission and obedience. 

On the contrary, They’re a fun-loving couple who enjoy Urdu pop songs, sumptuous, homecooked meals and good conversation. However, as immigrants from Pakistan, they have had to sacrifice tremendously to ensure a stable life for themselves and their children. Azmet had to redo his graduate studies, taking classes with fellow students twenty years his junior, in order to secure a well-paying job for himself. While their American-born (or at least American-raised) children yearn for self-expression, immigrants prioritize security and self-preservation. 

In the chaotic, cosmopolitan melting pot of America, immigrants turn to their religion and their heritage to maintain a cohesive sense of identity. Sharmeen is willing to tolerate Kumail’s pursuit of stand-up comedy over law school. However, nothing is more important than having her son retain his Islamic faith and marry a Pakistani girl. Her world falls apart when Kumail reveals his desire to walk a different path. 

While Kumail appreciates his parents’ sacrifices, he remains baffled by his parents’ insistence on following old-world traditions, wondering “why did we move here (America) in the first place”. This is a perfectly nuanced depiction of the generational gap between immigrants and their children. 

The tension between Terry and Beth perfectly parallels the issues that led to Kumail ‘s and Emily’s breakup. Terry’s and Beth’s eventual reconciliation gives Kumail the motivation he needs to resolve his relationship with Emily. Terry and Beth represent how older generations can provide lessons to their younger counterpart just by example.

It isn’t often that romcoms emphasize the importance of maintaining relationships with one’s parents. Kumail’s bonding with Emily’s folks along with his own relationship with his parents was absolutely crucial to his self-growth. They enabled him to evolve from a two-timing manchild to a confident person who lives on his own terms. 

It was commendable of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon to unveil themselves through this beautiful movie. Nanjiani proved his acting chops as a leading character in a major film production. Hopefully, this will be his breakout role that will lead to more film deals. Zoe Kazan performed well in her role as Emily. In addition, I was delighted to see both Ray Romano and Anupam Kher in starring roles as well. 

Micheal Showalter’s direction was exceptional. The flow of the film was well-paced and he handled the themes of the story with precision and sensitivity. I’m not surprised the film earned a score of 98% on Rottom Tomatoes. 

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