(By A. Spruiell/Black)
I’d wager that most every love story you’ve ever read, seen, listened to or enjoyed is one of sacrifice. We call it compromise, but to love another human requires giving of yourself to them – whether that’s your time, your affection, your money, or your support. This probably lends itself to explaining why falling in love is so exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time. You’re most assuredly taking a risk, but the reward is so great it doesn’t seem that daunting.
The Big Sick, a new romantic comedy starring Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani, does an excellent job of portraying that delightful uneasiness. This is not my first experience of the year with a story like this as Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang took similar risks with themes of race, religion and dating in their Emmy-winning Netflix show, Master of None. Both that and The Big Sick illustrate the larger theme of the intersection between sacrifice and love, attacking the idea of a soulmate. The idea has never appealed to me because it seems impossible to agree with someone on literally every aspect of your life, 100% of the time. And even if that were achievable, is it really ideal to be dating a carbon copy of yourself? Wouldn’t that become unbearably boring? To me, some of this conflict over culture is healthy in that it avoids fostering co-dependency. The crux comes in how honest people are about those pre-existing issues before entering the relationship. It’s been said that we all enter every relationship with baggage, but what matters is how we’ve chosen to pack and carry it. Are we the person with a small knapsack and carry-on? Or are we making our partner lug six suitcases to the desk and pay for all the baggage fees?
It’s an unorthodox story to be sure, but all the familiar notes of a great Nancy Meyers’ film are there. The plot, though, is in itself a bit of a spoiler, so if you don’t want to know the ending, I’d recommend stopping here. Cool? Cool.
Based on the real life romance of Nanjiani and his still very alive wife, Emily V. Gordon, the movie tells the story of how they met and their tumultuous courtship. Nanjiani, in an extremely prudent move, plays himself, while Emily is played by Zoe Kazan, whom you might remember from HBO’s Bored to Death. The two have the requisite “meet-cute” following one of Kumail’s stand-up sets and what they expect to be a simple one-night stand. Kumail tells her what her name would be in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, and she ribs him over his Hugh Grant cut from high school. It’s clear to everyone that there’s a spark there, and you can feel it through the screen. However, they both resist giving fully of themselves to the relationship at first, albeit for different reasons. This, as it always tends to do, results in an abrupt breakup and, normally, that would have been the end of the story. However, Emily contracts a mystery infection and ends up hospitalized with only Kumail there to make complicated medical decisions on her behalf, including choosing to put her in a medically induced coma.
It’s not often that you watch a romantic comedy where one half of the lead couple has what amounts to a supporting role in the movie. Emily is actually in the coma for the majority of the film, so as opposed to living through the trials of their relationship, we live exclusively through Kumail. But the emotions he goes through are still much the same that they would be anyway, just presented in a more unfamiliar, but ultimately more accessible way. Kumail still grapples with uncertainty – both that he did the right thing, and that a relationship when Emily wakes up is even possible. None of this is made any easier by the presence of Emily’s parents – played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter.
But this confrontation of choice is exactly where the movie finds its hook and its heart. Kumail knows he loves Emily, but is also aware that he’ll be sacrificing any semblance of a relationship with his parents if he does so openly. He’s understandably torn, as he’s existed to this point simply humoring his mother and her requests. Kumail and his family are Muslim immigrants from Pakistan and, outside of Kumail, very traditional. His mother continuously sets him up on “dates” with available Pakistani women living near them, in the hopes that he’ll find someone to marry. While dating Emily, Kumail neglects to tell her about these dates, and, likewise, hides Emily’s existence and their relationship from his family. Nobody ends up happy about that choice and it precipitates their break-up in the first act.
Having that crisis of conscience foisted upon him seems unfair to Kumail because we all operate under the assumption that love – or really any emotion – shouldn’t be restricted to peer groups. But what sets The Big Sick apart is the excellent job it does of navigating that dilemma without resorting to demonizing either party. There are no tangible villains here except the circumstances. There’s a particular scene of Kumail ending a date with someone whom his parents had picked. In other circumstances, her reaction might be played for laughs, or even over-wrought drama to fill the gaps in the story. But here, we see her honest emotion – one of understandable disappointment and anger at feeling used and cheated. Simultaneously, you can see where Kumail is coming from as he never asked to be put in this situation and can’t help who he loves. You feel for both of them in that moment of true vulnerability.
I’m neither Muslim, nor Pakistani, but as no stranger to interracial dating, this movie struck a chord with me. My parents have never told me they’d prefer I date black women, or that they’ll disown me if I do otherwise. But I can tell there’s an unspoken hope there. And while some would assume it’s borne out of racism, my experience would tell me that’s not totally the case.
My parents went through their adolescence in the 1950s and 1960s, a much different climate for interracial relationships. My father lived in Virginia for desegregation bussing programs, the team, and latent racism, that inspired Remember the Titans, and the case of Loving v. Virginia. My mother lived in rural Summerville, South Carolina near actual sharecropping farms where people were literally killed for just the suspicion consorting outside their race. Their reticence comes not from hatred or fear, but from a place of parental protection. Every parent wants their child to be happy, safe and healthy. It’s undeniable that this becomes harder when you create a situation that invites insecure, unstable people to do what they do best: provide unwarranted, unsolicited comment. It took me a long time to understand that, and when I was younger, it would upset me. With the gift of hindsight, I can say that I get it now, and to the credit of both my and Kumail’s parents, their viewpoints evolved, too.
A byproduct of telling a story like this is that we have the opportunity to feature a Pakistani-American man in a leading role. Representation has almost become a taboo word in some circles, and in some cases even I’m forced to admit it is heavy-handed. However, this is a movie that showcases its importance. The empowerment of women after seeing Wonder Woman was widespread and reported as such, but Nanjiani has given that same exhilaration to his own community. Indeed, just seeing an interracial couple featured on screen seems like a large step in the right direction, but in the current Islamophobic climate, it carries even more weight. To feature a Muslim family simply living their lives -Kumail and his brother going to the batting cages, Sunday dinners and the like – is an important step to dispelling the notion that their choice of religion somehow makes them different or dangerous.
My one and only gripe is that it was difficult to nail down the timeline of the movie. I had no idea how much time had passed from the beginning to the end, or how long Emily had actually been in the hospital. If you’re someone who values realism in a movie then that has the potential to take you out of the moment. The real world timeline had the two dating for eight months before Emily’s coma, and married four months after she woke up, so it was accelerated regardless of Hollywood movie magic. And while I enjoyed Romano and Hunter immensely in their roles as Emily’s parents, the resolution of their acceptance of Kumail felt similarly rushed. But at the same time, its at least understandable that the gravity of the situation might have pushed that along a little faster than normal. Part of accepting the unorthodox premise is also letting go of the traditional notion of what a romantic comedy should look like.
It didn’t occur to me until I walked out that I hadn’t seen a movie about interracial relationships that wasn’t making a more historical statement. They’re usually period pieces that end tragically, illustrating the long history this country has with racial inequality. And while there are still glimmers of that here, it is more of a backdrop than a key set piece. This is less a movie about what they sacrificed than what they gained. The Big Sick is more of a movie about accepting your own agency in your life, regardless of circumstance, so that you can finally start feeling better.