Astrid Swan and Nick Triani had a movie date and watched The Big Sick. It’s a comedy that deals with racism, relationships between two cultures, serious illness, relatives and love.
I read about The Big Sick some time ago in Sight & Sound and was interested to see it, hoping that it would come to Finland and fearing that it would evaporate before then… but it did appear at this year’s wonderful Love & Anarchy film festival in Helsinki.
What drew me to yet another North American relationship comedy? Well, this one was going to be about intercultural relationship: a local girl meets a comedian/Uber driver whose family has emigrated to the US when he was a kid – so local too, just with a family life that reflected Pakistani culture, and brown skin. Not only does this film offer a perspective never seen in a US comedy: intercultural relationship from the perspective of the othered and racialized, it also deals with sudden illness, the fear of death and the perspectives that such a trauma can open to people in crisis. As you can imagine, these themes are close to my heart – or at least, any time someone is dealing with them in art, I am interested because I live these themes in my everyday life.
Not only does this film offer a perspective never seen in a US comedy: intercultural relationship from the perspective of the othered and racialized, it also deals with sudden illness, the fear of death and the perspectives that such a trauma can open to people in crisis.
Kumail Nanjiani did not only play the leading role in the film, he co-wrote the script with Emily V Gordon (his wife) and it is based on their personal life narrative. Zoe Kazan plays the love interest, Emily, whom we see falling in love (and out of love) with Kumail. To be honest, the film was not very romantic, at least not in any sugar-coated way. I’m not sure we got any information on why these two people wanted so badly to be together (although, when does that ever make sense anyway). There were much more urgent things to make the film about, like everyday racism, exclusion and the various layers of culture that constantly interact in influencing a person.
The film spends its time on getting the multiple perspectives of Kumail. We learn intimately about his emotions and his conflicted position in relation to his family’s values, such as the tradition of an arranged marriage. Represented as the opposite is Kumail’s desire to do comedy and choose his own (white) girlfriend. These appear as his personal dreams. But I am left wondering to what extend they are US culture-led aspirations and dreams. (It is important to ask are his dreams of becoming a comedian any less culture-bound than his refusal to follow through with an arranged marriage? Or is this simply an American perspective that equates the US with personal freedom and other cultures with inability to fulfill the self?)
The parents of Emily were played brilliantly by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. They were much more rounded, funny and complex characters than the love-interest herself. I don’t want to ruin to the plot, so I cannot linger on why – but maybe she could have been fleshed out a bit more. I love an intelligent comedy. I love to chuckle at Woody Allen’s humour – his films are my medicine. The Big Sick certainly follows in that tradition of comedy. Seeing Judd Apatow’s name in the production credits has come to mean something to that effect.
Still, I wish to give all the credit to Kumail Nanjiani. He was on screen through most of the movie. His presence, his humour, timing and emotion were the main ingredients that made this movie special.
Let me tell you about the big sick: Not the pleasant movie of the same name which touched on some interesting themes but came over a bit too nice (more on that later) – but living with someone who has ‘the big sick’; metastatic cancer in this case. Actually, perhaps I want to talk more about other people’s reactions to living with chronic illness in the family. At some point, you become defined in others’ eyes by that illness. It’s like a halo above your head (a grey one perhaps), or a permanent rain cloud. There is a fine line between people’s concerned empathic inquiry on one hand and being viewed as some kind of cruel victim on the other. This sounds ungrateful, though really I’m not. People are very kind and genuinely concerned. If anything, in general terms and certainly from friends and colleagues, it feels very supportive how much people care. So I’m not here having a moan. Living with someone who has made their struggle to stay alive very public, brings with it a natural curiosity from others mixed with morbid fascination. In my day to day (and that of my sick partner) – we’ve managed to mix recuperation periods with an extremely engaging workload, family life and serious bouts of creativity. Life is not poor on these terms and ultimately we do not betray signs of Western privilege. The treatment my wife has recieved had not only been life saving, but reassuring. We’ll never be out of the woods but we can see the light. So relatively speaking, things could be a lot worse.
Here’s some feelings I’ve experienced since my wife was diagnosed with her chronic illness; crushed, desperate, lonely, despairing, determined, hopeful, angry, overwhelmed, stunned, sad, useless, helpful, strong and helpless. I could go on, but this will do (and you get the idea). The last five months have been surreal and stressful. The burning question for the doctors, “How Long do we have?” will never be answered. There is no reassurance here, security or long term future. No planning or panning out. You just have to roll with it as some gobby singer once proclaimed. And once you take that on board things become easier. This is now our normal. And yeah, it’s never fucking easy.
I’ve found a new love of the TV serial this year whilst all this has been going on. Twin Peaks: The Return has been more than diverting (actually a privilege). I’ve been recently watching The Killing (US version) which I’ve become addicted to. Both series deal with a lot of death and dying and looking for meaning in that. And children coping with extreme situations. It breaks my heart – I’m really sentimental and these programmes have had a strong emotional pull for me. And perhaps more insight about these kinds of feelings and dealing with a very sick person in your life was something I was missing from The Big Sick. And yeah, that emotional pull I mentioned. Of course, The Big Sick is billed as a romantic comedy, but its best moments are away from the rom-com gaze.
And perhaps more insight about these kinds of feelings and dealing with a very sick person in your life was something I was missing from The Big Sick. And yeah, that emotional pull I mentioned.
The Big Sick mirrored a lot of things in my own life. I relate to the other as personified by co-writer and lead actor Kumail Nanjiani. Nanjiani’s real life story of his secret interracial relationship which runs against the expected considerations of his Pakistani family is well told. The laughs are many. This is a good natured film which makes great points about the Western view on Islam, racial stereotypes, cultural differences and others reactions of dealing with the big sick. But I had problems with The Big Sick too (on top of its lack of emotional context). Nanjiani can come across as smug and a little self-satisfied at times (which sets the tone for a lot of the film). His love interest Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) is a thinly rendered character. We hardly know enough of Emily to empathise with her illness. It’s a big minus and a central flaw of the movie for me. Bonus points come from Holly Hunter’s contrarian turn as the mother who warms to Emily’s former boyfriend, whilst Ray Romano as Emily’s father totally steals the film with the best lines and an injection of bad taste (something the movie lacks overall). This has shades of Woody Allen at his best (which is a high recommendation). Although the romance on display – which is central to the movie – doesn’t always convince, Nanjiani’s story has much to tell about a worldview we rarely see represented on screen. So ultimately, if you ignore the premise of the film – hahaha – The Big Sick is worth your time.