Authentic Romance, by Josh Long

14 Jun

Generally, I don’t enjoy romantic comedies. There are exceptions, of course, but many of them fall into regular traps; weak characters, predictable structures, pandering. So even when people that I love (Kumail Nanjiani and Michael Showalter) collaborate on a rom-com, I’m a little trepidatious.  Could it be a When Harry Met Sally, or is it going to succumb to the lower common denominators of the genre? Fortunately, The Big Sick has a big factor playing in its favor: authenticity.

The Big Sick is based on real life events. It’s the story of how Nanjiani (the co-writer and lead actor in the film) met and fell in love with his real life wife, Emily Gordon (the other co-writer). And it’s a great story – the kind every couple wishes they had when someone asks them “so how did you meet?” Gordon and Nanjiani met in a comedy club in Chicago, when she heckled him at a show (although I’m with her on this one – a “woo-hoo” isn’t necessarily a heckle).

As the film tells it, Emily and Kumail start dating, quickly forging a close connection. However, Kumail knows that there’s a big barrier between them that he’s not sure he can scale. His Pakistani family is very traditional, and expects him to marry a Pakistani girl. And he’s known men who have been essentially kicked out of their families for marrying non-Pakistanis. He doesn’t want to give Emily up, but doesn’t want to lose his family either. When she finds out he’s been hiding this, they break up.

It isn’t long afterwards that Emily is rushed to the hospital with a mysterious lung infection. Kumail rushes to her side, just in time for the doctors to medically induce a coma. It falls on him to contact her parents, who rush to the scene. They know about what’s happened between Kumail and Emily, and as such, aren’t his biggest fans. But as Emily remains in the coma, the three are forced to spend a lot of time together. They eventually have no choice but to bond over their common love for Emily.

Knowing that it’s a true story, it should be no surprise that Emily eventually comes out of the coma. Another element of drama kicks in at this point – Kumail has fallen deeper in love with Emily while she’s been in the hospital, but the hurt she’s felt hasn’t really subsided. The remainder of the film shows how the time in the coma has changed both of them, and gives them new ways to respond to circumstances that existed before.

The key particulars of the story are all true. I don’t know how much of the rest of the details are true, but it all feels real. It’s messy in a way that bad romantic comedies wish they were messy. Nothing comes easily, but at the same time nothing is overly tragic. And it doesn’t stick to just one core issue for the characters. Throughout the coma, Kumail still has his family and his career to deal with. In real life, no one is ever dealing with one difficult situation independently, and this film accurately portrays the mounting pressures that Kumail has to juggle. The realism of this story makes it much more engaging than your typical romantic comedy.

Also, it’s really funny. Nanjiani has been in comedy for a long time – he knows his stuff. Jokes are clever, unexpected, well timed. It’s also one of the few films where the stand-up comedians feel like real stand-up comedians. Movie world stand-up often looks like movie world advertising; just barely up to the standards of the real world. Director Michael Showalter excels here, more as the director of Hello, My Name is Doris than as the co-creator of Wet Hot American Summer. He finds that perfect balance between silliness and sincerity, never short-changing one for to service the other.

The acting is great all around – Zoe Kazan creates an Emily that matches the sincerity in the dialogue written by the real-life Emily. Nanjiani takes on the difficult task of replaying scenes from his own real life, and always feels fully present and natural (and funny, when the moment calls for it). It’s a great cast overall, but possibly the strongest performer is Holly Hunter as Beth, Emily’s mom. We should all know by now what a fantastic actress she is, but she brings something so new, heartfelt and genuine to this character that she’s a joy to watch.

Some elements of the film, while not bad, aren’t quite as strong. The plot points surrounding Kumail’s family are important (and ring true), but it is a development we’ve seen before, which keeps it from hefting the proper emotional weight. There’s also a feeling that we don’t see a great deal of Emily’s post-coma emotional transformation. Of course, adding more there would mean further stretching the runtime, which already beats out your average rom-com at 119 minutes.

That said, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, funny and heart-warming film. If you’re not generally a fan of romantic comedies, don’t worry – this one’s worth it.

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