There was time, lo many days, nay years ago, when romantic comedies burst forth upon the cinematic firmament, fully-formed, delightfully-engaging, possessed of a fairytale-esque romantic sensibility and a sense that life, for all its many banal obstacles and nasty stumbling blocks, could actually be something quite magical.
The cynic within us didn’t necessarily believe such love was possible but for a short time in that darkened cinema with all the stresses and burdens hidden away on the other side of the door, we could pretend, just for a moment, that we could be that in love.
Those days are long gone now, with Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally and While You’re Sleeping mere twinkles in the eye of best-of romantic comedy lists; the good news is that The Big Sick not only brings back the golden age of falling in love on film, but goes one step further, rooting it, as far as the storytelling demands of cinematic romance allow, in the grit and reality of the everyday.
That’s largely because it’s the true story of how the stand-up wanna-be child of US Pakistani immigrants, Kumail Nanjiani – played by himself, bringing the dry of his role in Silicon Valley and marrying it with a winningly sweet vulnerability – eschewed cultural and familial expectations and allowed himself to fall in love, though arranged marriage beckoned, with an American girl named Emily (Zoe Kazan).
It’s hardly a spoiler to know that they ended up marrying and collaborated on bringing their grand, epic love story to the big screen; in fact, it garnishes this never-puts-a-foot-wrong romantic comedy with an appealing concreteness, a sense that this is not some imaginary tale of the heart but something that could happen to real people in extraordinarily real circumstances.
Precisely because it did.
Where reality really came a-biting is some time into their romance, hidden from Kumail’s parents Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), and brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) – who went along with tradition and married his arranged bride Fatima (Shenaz Treasury) – when Emily, bright, bubbly, goofy Emily, succumbs to a virulent infection and has to be put into a medically-induced coma.
Having just broken up after Emily finds out that not only has Kumail kept their romance a closely-guarded secret, afraid he’ll be kicked out of his family – that does happen but you get the feeling that it won’t be a permanent state of affairs not with someone as tenaciously funny as Kumail on the case – but that he has a cigar box of all the headshots of the Pakistani women his mother has set him up with.
Admitting he isn’t sure if he has a place in his future for Emily, though it’s clear he has fallen head over heels in love with her, and she with him, they split and then, not long thereafter, Kumail finds himself in the awkward position of being in close company with Emily’s parents Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter) during the long weeks of Emily’s illness and long recovery.
What begins as a stupendously uncomfortable coming together, since Terry and Beth know all the circumstances of Kumail and Emily’s then-aborted romance, one complicated by the stress of an ongoing illness that shows no sign initially of responding to treatment, soon grows into a closeness and familiarity that is at once sweetly intimate and and quite believable.
After all, these are people at the coalface of emotional distress – Terry and Beth are agonising over the lingering sickness of their daughter and how best to treat it while Kumail grows acutely aware he can’t lose Emily, whatever the consequences – and they have a choice to either bond closely or retreat to opposing, hostile corners; that they do the former in instrumental in the cementing of the temporarily stymied grand romance, once Emily eventually recovers.
It’s at that point that the rubber really hits the road, and the reality of Kumail cementing his love for Emily while she, by virtue of the coma is freeze-framed at the point of the breakup, really starts to feel like less of a rom-com trope and more the stuff of real life.
Up to that point, it has many of the tropes of a romantic comedy supremely well-executed – the meet-cute (she heckles him playfully during his stand-up routine), the will-they-won’t they date moments, the witty, delightfully-affecting dialogue, the montage of growing intimacy and closeness; it’s all there, but given what follows it feels less fey and more grounded and real, the kind of stuff that happens in the honeymoon phase of any great love affair.
What really gives The Big Sick its deep, emotional romance is that for all the witty insights and drily delivered oneliners – Kumail is a master of the art and shines in every scene, balancing emotional truthfulness with brilliantly-funny humour – it lets the real stuff feel real.
Really gut-wrenchingly real.
Emily’s sickness is not just a cute prop for some eventual reconciliation; that’s hard-won and takes major post-recovery concessions by both parties.
Rather, it’s is allowed to live and be devastatingly real with the horrific agony of watching someone you know fight a major illness and be close to death on a number of sickening occasions; this is not the stuff of lighter-than-air romantic confections and The Big Sick is happy to be as much emotionally-taxing drama as it is a funny, witty romantic comedy.
It’s great strength, apart from a stellar cast – Nanjiani and Kazan are perfect together, chemistry very much in evidence while Romano and Hunter are far more than cardboard cutout parents there as some sort of emotional fop for Emily and Kumail – is that it’s happy to let this balance swing back and forth as needed.
It recognises that what makes this story unique is that it actually happened, and in the kind of situation you wouldn’t wish on anyone, and that the harrowing moments of facing mortality and the reality of familial politics and cultural expectations, played as much a role in shaping the romance as the intangibles of love and attraction.
This is love in the trenches, admittedly one with a killer punchline and a touching sweetness that never once feels forced or sickly.
It grounds the deeply-appealing The Big Sick with the kind of emotional authenticity that means that the winning romantic comedy sense that love is not just possible but will definitely happen, lasts long after the cinema doors have swung shut behind you, and feels way more possible that it has in some time.