- WAITING ROOM: Holly Hunter, Ray Romano and Kumail Nanjiani star in "The Big Sick," a semi-autobiographical romantic comedy written by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon.
The words "based upon a true story" have typically applied to sweeping historical epics, though recent events are also now regularly packaged for the movie-going public, especially if they touch upon war or terrorism and feature Mark Wahlberg yelling a lot. Few romantic comedies, by contrast, have any grounding in real-world happenings, if only because most of us woo and wed without the calamitous series of misunderstandings and the charismatic cast of characters necessary to entertain an audience of millions.
Director Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick," however, is both a true rom-com and a true story. Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, a Pakistani American who works as an Uber driver in Chicago while struggling to make it big as a comedian. One night at the comedy club, he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan), and they quickly fall in love despite their intentions otherwise — she is in graduate school to become a therapist and has no time for relationships, while his traditional parents have made it clear they will disown him if he marries anyone other than a decent Pakistani girl. In fact, when Emily finally learns that Kumail has not told his family about her, she storms out of his life. Things between them should have ended here, but soon Emily is hospitalized with a mysterious disease and has to be put into a medically induced coma to save her life. Almost by default, Kumail ends up helping her out-of-town parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano in two absolutely perfect performances) while they negotiate their daughter's care. As he interacts with them during this, one of the worst times of their lives, he comes to gain a new perspective on the intersection of family expectations and personal needs.
Hollywood loves telling this story of lovers from across a cultural divide struggling for acceptance from each other's people, be it comedies like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" or dramas like "A United Kingdom." "The Big Sick" seems, on the surface, to be playing within the same sandbox as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" — the immigrant parents with their devotion to tradition and the homeland they left years ago, combined with the Americanized child who finds love and meaning outside those structures. We relish this story, for it justifies both our relentless individualism and our "melting pot" idealism. It's the American paradox reconciled via the magic of Hollywood.
But "The Big Sick" does more than just substitute Pakistanis for a boisterous Greek family — it completely subverts some noteworthy tropes of the romantic comedy genre. Sure, Kumail undergoes an important change while Emily lies in a coma like Sleeping Beauty on a respirator, but he does that without her being conscious of it. In fact, he probably spends more of the movie's runtime with her parents than he does with her. And so when, upon Emily's awakening, Kumail offers the grand romantic gesture, packaging his time spent at her side as objects of devotion, her reaction flies in the face of the rules of the romantic comedy — the genre where grand gestures are always welcome, no matter how unwanted, no matter how much they border upon stalker like behavior.
Instead of resolving its romantic tension with a quick fix, "The Big Sick" (written by Kumail and his real-life wife, Emily V. Gordon) employs its comedic framework to explore the hard work necessary to build and sustain a relationship. And the movie likewise works to build and sustain a relationship with its viewers. When the comedy starts to dissipate as Kumail reaches his point of crisis, we remain invested in him, for he is more than a source of jokes by this point. In fact, no characters, not even the stodgy immigrant parents, are played just for laughs; their behavior may cause a chuckle, but their wounds can run deep. By trusting us with its pain, the movie assures us that its happy ending, its true story, can be ours, too, if we but commit to a life of love beyond the confines of genre.