The Big Sick: A Comedic Exploration of Love, Tradition and Alienation in the 21st Century

By Ittai Sopher

Pitzer College ‘19

Film Columnist

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Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick, written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, and based off their real-life experiences, chronicles the collapse of Kumail Nanjiani’s balancing act of lying in the face of his traditional family’s martial and religious expectations, while restraining his deep love for his white girlfriend, Emily. In the first scene of the film, Kumail, the film’s protagonist, says that playing cricket, praying five times a day, and arranged marriage are the three most crucial differences at the heart of his family’s Muslim and Pakistani culture.

Within the first twenty minutes of the film, Kumail disregards all three of these things; ditching his prayer-rug and cricket bat, watching fail compilations on YouTube, and later dissing his mother’s matchmaking skills. From the beginning, the film introduces the audiences to an extremely complex protagonist for a romantic-comedy in the 21st century. However, Kumail transcends the stereotypes of the diasporic heretic, by demonstrating an intense love for his culture and heritage, even investing his time and resources into a two-hour autobiographical play about his relationship with the culture and history of Pakistan, which includes segments about the Indo-Pakistani wars and the anatomy of a cricket bat. The comedy of The Big Sick is born out of the ridicule Kumail faces from his family for straying away from the expected path, as well as the bigotry that Kumail experiences. In his family life, Kumail mumbles about how he’s considering dropping stand-up to become a lawyer, while Kumail’s mother tells him that Malala Yousafzai has more potential for a career in stand-up comedy.

In the face of prejudice, Kumail jokes about 9/11 and is very quick to reassure onlookers in a coffee-shop who are suspiciously eyeing Kumail and his brother, “it’s OK, we hate terrorists”. When Kumail is with his friends, they roast each other constantly. In fact, Kumail’s roommate, the only comedian not prone to negativity or dark humor, is the least successful of the bunch and the source of most of the group’s mockery.

Later, when Emily enters a medically induced coma, and Kumail falls more deeply in love with her, Kumail is forced to meditate on his brother’s classic line: “There are one billion Muslims in the world, and you are the one who has it right”. These pieces of Kumail’s life serve as a testament to the strength of his convictions and creates serious internal explorations for Kumail in a movie that is also extremely funny.

At its heart, The Big Sick is a movie about the obligations of its protagonist Kumail’s difficulty in finding his footing in both the intense meaning and responsibility of his identity and his deep and restrained love for his girlfriend, who is emblematic of his wish to live a life outside the regulations of his family and his tradition, is at the heart of this film. In addition, the supporting performances, like Zoe Kazan as Emily whose evoked presence while unconscious is only possible by her strong on-screen presence in the early phase of her and Kumail’s relationship, provide strong on-screen support for Kumail as he meditates his act of love and rebellion.

The Big Sick is probably the best romantic-comedy in recent years, and it’s thanks to the strong character construction, terrific acting, and comedic timing from the films leads and supporting actors, as well as how seriously the film takes Kumail’s familial and romantic crisis.