WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
THE BIG SICK is co-written by Emily V. Gordon and star Kumail Nanjiani, based on their real-life story of meeting and falling in love. The movie is warmly engaging and funny. It feels like a long time since I've seen a romantic comedy that is neither overly saccharine and twee nor obnoxiously brash. Every performance is really strong; Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are the real highlights as the restless, worried parents of Zoe Kazan's cinematic version of Gordon.
For those unaware, the central chunk of the film deals with Emily's frightening illness, that forces doctors to put her in a medically-induced coma. It occurs shortly after she and Kumail have had a rough breakup, and the ensuing drama of Kumail both feeling guilty and out of place in her absence is the meat of the film.
This is why I both commend the filmmakers – Nanjiani, Gordon, and director Michael Showalter – and also scratch my head a little bit. They tried to pack a lot into one small film, probably more than we might realize at first. It starts from the very beginning of the duo's relationship, and crams in their dating and first breakup in the first act, which is supplemented and and affected by the scenes with Kumail's Pakistani family. It's Kumail's inability to act on both parties (his family and his girlfriend) that drives the conflict. It's not only a story he tells from his vantage, it's a story serving his character. And unfortunately, Emily's part in all this really gets sidelined.
Of course, for her to be in a coma for most of the film is the main reason she can't be an active participant in the narrative. But what disappointed me is how much say she got in everything in the last act, when she wakes from the coma. Yes, we see that she made the choice to follow Kumail to New York at the end, but we're truly left wondering why, other than "she felt like it." It's not that that can't be dramatically compelling by itself, but in order for that to happen, it has to be, well, dramatized. We don't get a sense of interiority into her decisions. We're just shown that in the time between her encounters with Kumail that she's warmed back up to the idea of being with him. I can think of a few ways that that could have been fleshed out, but that would be adding, and changing what the film is. Because, let's make no mistake, this is Kumail's film.
I don't know for sure if that's a bad thing, as everything exploring Kumail and his relationship to two worlds is extremely watchable. The scenes with his family are funny, pretty heartbreaking, and even a bit provocative when it comes to understanding cultural differences in romance and familial duty. On the other side of the coin, we watch him struggle with feeling unwanted in the outside world, whether it's because of his race, his career goals, or primarily, his relationship to Emily and by extension her parents. It's a strong story. And it works really well.
That's why I'm encountering problems when thinking about this movie. I can't help but feel that it's not a love story, and more an identity story. And so I also feel that the filmmakers needed to pick one story to tell. If it was meant to be a story of coming together, then maybe it needed more scenes with Emily by herself, and less time spent with her asleep. If it was truly meant to be about Kumail coming into his own, then we should have started with the couple already dating, making Emily an established part of his life in the beginning.
Every part of the film is truthful and warm and satisfying to watch, because it is, after all, a real story about real people. But the thing is, real life doesn't have proper beginnings, middles, and ends. A great story you tell in person about how you and your partner met works because we have the living proof of its happy ending in front of us. That's the challenge of bringing one's story to the screen – we don't know you. And I suppose I'm just bummed that I didn't feel any catharsis emerge from Kumail and Emily's encounter in the final scene.
All of this said, I highly, highly recommend this film for its myriad of lovable characters and the humor and warmth it brings with them. Go see it in the theater.