Girlfriend in a Coma
by Michael Joshua Rowin
The Big Sick
Dir. Michael Showalter, U.S., Amazon Studios/Lionsgate
The Big Sick is, first and foremost, openly autobiographical. Featuring Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani as a Pakistani-American and Zoe Kazan as his Caucasian girlfriend, the film was written by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon; Nanjiani’s character is named Kumail and Kazan’s character is named Emily. Because Nanjiani plays himself, The Big Sick is set in the world of Chicago stand-up comedy, where the real Nanjiani made his start. His routines, and those of his colleagues (including Bo Burnham and SNL cast member Aidy Bryant), aren’t all that funny—indeed, some of them are intentionally meant to be unfunny—but the screenplay effectively captures the back-biting, one-upmanship, and camaraderie that inevitably foment within such an insular and competitive stratum of the entertainment business.
Kumail and Emily meet-cute after she excitedly approves and “woo-hoos” one of his sets. Some of the best moments of The Big Sick simply detail Kumail and Emily’s courtship; a scene in which Kazan portrays Emily’s refusal to pretend she likes Kumail’s favorite movie, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, is particularly endearing. Despite having been annoyed when previous boyfriends “tested” her movie and music taste, Emily falls for Kumail and his sincere hope that she likes the things he likes—here Nanjiani and Gordon capture the magic of moments when lovers become captivated even by each others’ foibles.
All the while, however, Kumail’s family attempts to set him up in an arranged marriage. Just as he hides from his parents his irreligiosity and lack of interest in the LSATs (mother Zenobia Shroff insists that comedy is not a realistic career), Kumail politely goes along with the ritual as various young Pakistani women not-so-accidentally “drop in” during the weekly family dinner—he then stuffs their profile photos in a cigar box, never following up. Emily discovers the photos, demands an explanation, and finds out from Kumail that he’s essentially leading a double life. He hasn’t told his folks about her—if they knew of the relationship he would be disowned. Emily, understandably, breaks up with Kumail.
But then Emily suffers a lung infection and is placed in a medically induced coma, and from that point on The Big Sick juggles comedy and drama with mixed results. For instance, Kumail shares several initial awkward moments waiting in the hospital with Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry Gardner (Ray Romano), who know why their daughter dumped him. Sensing the Gardners want him to leave, Kumail gets up to go, but not before reassuring them that the difference between a medically induced coma and a non-medically induced coma is like the difference between good and bad carbs, or good and bad gremlins. Not knowing how to end his rambling speech, Kumail attempts to part with an awkward “Peace in the Middle East.” Nanjiani forces the delivery of this dialogue, which is already contrived. Rather than capturing the actual weird, inappropriate, and corny things people say to alleviate tension during grave situations, The Big Sick’s comic insertions during serious scenes strike the same flat, predictable beats that worked just as poorly in Funny People and Trainwreck (especially the funeral scene in the latter). Judd Apatow, notably, is a producer here, and his auteurist signatures appear amidst the film’s personal details: gratuitous pop culture references, strained mergings of comedy and drama, and the propensity to scapegoat a randomly designated character (e.g., Martin Starr in Knocked Up, constantly mocked for . . . growing a beard). The personal dimension of Nanjiani and Gordon’s story frequently overcomes the film’s Apatow-ness, but it also never quite shines through: the film leaves unaddressed several questions and issues that might have made it not only more authentic but also more culturally insightful.
Once Emily falls ill, the film becomes less about Kumail and Emily and more about Kumail and Emily’s parents. Hunter is soulful and intense as the tough, take-charge Beth, and Romano—who proved himself a surprisingly multi-layered dramatic actor in the dreadful HBO series Vinyl—communicates a melancholic vulnerability as the neurotic Terry. The scenes in which Kumail witnesses and learns from the friction between the Gardners—most notably in a late-night one-on-one where Terry tearfully admits to past infidelities—work especially well in evoking the deep, repressed strains that arise in a marriage during crisis.
But as Kumail builds a friendship with the Gardners he also ends his relationship with his parents by telling them about Emily. The Big Sick never resolves this familial dissolution—and yet the real-life conclusion is revealed during the closing credits, which play out amidst photos of the real Nanjianis at the real Kumail and Emily’s wedding. Toward the end of the film when Kumail sets off for New York City in further pursuit of a comedy career, his father (Anupam Kher) leaves a door open for future communication, but his mother still won’t speak to him. How did Kumail and his parents repair their rift, and how did the Nanjianis accept Emily as their son’s girlfriend and eventual wife?
The Big Sick covers Kumail’s emotional growth by depicting, at length, the wisdom he gains in befriending Beth and Terry, whose initial dislike of Kumail is out of deference to their daughter’s hurt feelings and not out of bigotry or cultural exclusion. (Though Terry bumblingly asks the Muslim Kumail how he feels about 9/11, instigating Kumail’s deadpan response: “It was terrible—we lost nineteen of our best guys in it.”) The film develops a relationship between characters who are not separated by cultural barriers—indeed, Beth and Terry stand up for Kumail when a racist heckles his set—even though the initial barrier in Kumail and Emily’s relationship is thoroughly cultural. The film enacts a bizarre sidestep, as if the happiness—or, at the very least, truce—arrived at by Kumail, Emily, and the Nanjianis was too messy and complicated to be represented through rom-com, or Apatowian, formula.
Emily also becomes an afterthought. After several twists and turns in her diagnosis and treatment, she pulls through. While Kumail confronts his parents and even opens up emotionally about Emily during a stand-up set as she lies in a coma, Emily awakens and sees Kumail as the same devious, noncommittal guy who lied to her before her illness. The Big Sick doesn’t rush their reconciliation, but the film ends before broaching some of the more challenging aspects of their story. What did Emily think and feel about the Nanjianis once she was accepted into their family? Did she harbor any ill will toward them for their initial rejection of her as a Caucasian woman? How did she feel about the Nanjianis once she reunited with Kumail while he was still officially disowned from the family? Initially fueled by the rift between personal desires and cultural expectations, the film eventually elides the richest parts of this conflict. One imagines the comedic antics Kazan, Kher, and Shroff might have generated from the awkward interactions and exchanges arising from such friction.
The Big Sick was directed by Michael Showalter, whose anarchic sensibility (as best represented in his absurdist sketch comedy troupes The State and Stella) is completely absent from the film. Granted, that sensibility isn’t necessarily appropriate for the rooted-in-reality The Big Sick, but Showalter’s other directorial projects like The Baxter and Hello, My Name Is Doris—while more conventional than the gonzo spoofs he’s co-written with fellow State and Stella member David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, They Came Together)—perform some loving tweaks of the standard rom-com. Unfortunately The Big Sick remains fairly standard due to its avoidance of difficult material.