The Big Sick [subtitled in part]

The Big Sick

You know the concept of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”? I feel sort of the opposite about The Big Sick. As I think about this movie, there is far more I would put on the positive side of the ledger than the negative side, yet I just wasn’t as engaged in it as I’d expect in a case like that. When I’m really into a movie, I often think I’d be willing to spend another half hour or more with these characters and this story, but with The Big Sick, I found myself instinctively looking at my watch multiple times, and I was glad it wasn’t longer than it was.

So I liked numerous aspects of the film, but the whole didn’t win me over more than modestly.

Why? I’m really not sure even after reflecting on it. But I’ll talk about the pros and cons as best I can, and maybe in the process I’ll get a better sense of that.

But first, a quick rundown of what the film is about.

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), the son of Pakistani immigrants, is a stand-up comic in Chicago. He picks up a girl after a show, Emily (Zoe Kazan), and soon enough they are in a relationship.

The problem with that is that his parents, especially his mother, are adamant that he has to marry a Pakistani Muslim girl. In fact, his mother incessantly introduces him to such girls, determined that sooner or later one will “stick.”

Kumail is ambivalent about the whole thing. He sort of wants to break free of his parents’ requirement, but on the other hand he doesn’t want to deal with the conflict he knows would ensue. So he dithers, continuing to see Emily behind his parents’ back, while also meeting the numerous Pakistani girls he is fixed up with.

Eventually Emily finds out what’s happening and blows up. He could probably save the situation if he agreed to commit to her, stop meeting the Pakistani girls, and inform his parents that he is now in a relationship with Emily, but he remains indecisive and so she storms out of his life permanently.

But not quite permanently. Because he soon finds out from a friend of hers that she has been rushed to the hospital and that, for the moment, no one is available to be with her. So he goes. It turns out she has some fluke infection or other ailment that puzzles the doctors for a while. It’s so bad that they have to put her in a medically-induced coma.

Soon her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) arrive from out of state. They, especially the mother, are initially hostile toward Kumail, as their daughter has told them all about her relationship with him and how hurt it left her. But he sticks around, as he has come to realize he has deep feelings for her after all.

Much of the movie, then, is about the doctors’ attempts to save Emily, while Kumail and her parents try to adjust to each other. Then once she’s out of the coma, the question is whether she’ll be willing to take Kumail back so they can live happily ever after, since, after all, while he has had an opportunity to reflect on what she means to him, and to heroically remain by her side through this crisis, she has been unconscious the whole time and has not had any ability, or reason, to move beyond the mode of being angry with him and wanting him out of her life.

Like I say, there are plenty of things I liked about The Big Sick. To start with, it’s a feel-good movie, in a good sense. Fundamentally, it’s a nice story about nice people.

There are a few good laughs. I wouldn’t rate it real high purely as a comedy, but it definitely has its moments. A good example is Kumail’s mother’s charade that all the women she tries to match Kumail up with just happen to drop in by chance. Ray Romano has some pretty good lines, as you’d expect.

Indeed, the movie picks up when Romano and Hunter enter it. They’re funny and interesting with each other, and in how they act with Kumail. Solid casting.

But the more serious issues are handled fairly well too, like this whole question of a Pakistani semi-arranged marriage versus Kumail having the freedom to choose whomever he wants. I could feel why Kumail is so torn and so indecisive, being pulled in different directions by legitimate factors. It’s not like all the reasons on one side are bogus, and once you figure that out the choice becomes easy. I mean, he really does want to be with Emily or a woman of his choosing, but at the same time he really wants to respect his parents’ wishes and maintain what is evidently a quite positive relationship with his family.

In the end, I think the parents are out of line insisting he marry according to their wishes. Even if it really is “all we’ve ever asked of you” as they claim, it’s frankly too much to ask. If a person chooses to maintain a certain tradition, fine, but it’s wrong to coerce him into it through emotional blackmail.

As his parents, explain to him on the merits why marrying within the family’s faith and ethnicity—with plenty of input from the parents on who the wife is to be—is warranted, give him the freedom to comply or not, and let the chips fall where they may.

But in any case, it’s an important issue, and the movie allows for there to be legitimate considerations on both sides, rather than implying that it’s an easy call, or playing it solely for laughs.

Kumail’s clique of comedian friends is an appealing bunch. They have a good camaraderie, and their banter is more amusing than not.

Certainly Kazan is a cutie. “Cute” has become kind of a synonym for attractive in general, hot, sexy, whatever, but she’s actually cute in the old fashion, narrower sense of puppies and such. She has one of those big-eyed, elfin faces. Not that that kind of cute can’t also be sexy; I find her quite appealing.

The story is understandable, moves along at a decent pace, and is reasonably believable, at least for a comedy.

So what’s wrong with it? The characters, the story, the humor, and the treatment of more serious issues are all handled at least fairly well. Why did my instinctive reaction to The Big Sick not match up with my conscious assessment of it, i.e., why was I looking at my watch periodically, hoping the movie was getting close to the end?

Maybe some of it is that I never fully bought the chemistry between Kumail and Emily. The cutesy elements of their interaction mostly fell flat for me, and I didn’t sense much on a deeper, more serious level that would make them compatible. They felt more like people who are capable of enjoying each other’s company on a fairly superficial level as long as things are going well than like soulmates.

Granted, Kumail proves able to take it to a more serious level by putting forth the effort to see her through her major illness, and to overcome significant resistance from her parents in the process. But why he’s motivated to do that isn’t clear. It just doesn’t feel like these people would be big deals to each other.

I also thought Emily, cute as she is, could be something of a bitch. Kumail shows at least some empathy for her and how his ambivalence about what to do in regards to his parents’ requirements for him could be hurtful or unfair to her, but she manifests none for him. There’s no, “Wow, you’re in a really, really tough situation with parents you love who love you but are trying to control such an intimate part of your life”; it’s all, “You lied to me by omission by not telling me this stuff about your parents until now. I hate you. I never want to see you again. Wahhhh.”

Then after she wakes up and finds out that he behaved impeccably and showed thorough devotion to her and won over her parents, and after he abjectly apologizes to her, explains how he realizes how much he is in love with her and is fully committed to her regardless of the situation with his parents, she treats all that as trivial and insufficient compared to his earlier treatment of her, as if that had been unforgivably terrible.

I wanted to get caught up in the romance part, to root for them to recognize each other as soulmates, and for there to be a happy ending—as not infrequently I can be a sucker for that kind of thing; if I can’t have it in life, I might as well at least enjoy it vicariously in art—but I just wasn’t feeling that about this couple more than quite modestly.

I’m going to give The Big Sick the benefit of the doubt, though. Granted, I only enjoyed it to a limited extent while watching it, but maybe that’s just some superficial subjective thing, like that I wasn’t in the mood for a movie, or at least for this type of movie, on the occasion when I watched it. I feel better about it in retrospect. (Another factor I like that I haven’t mentioned is that it’s based on a true story. Kumail is basically playing himself. I didn’t know that until the end of the movie, as I hadn’t read much about it at all before seeing it. They briefly show the real-life Emily, and the four parents at the end. Something about that I find rather charming.) Let’s give this one a thumbs up.

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