Is The Big Sick this generation’s Casablanca, as 97% of critics seem to believe it is, or is it merely another run-of-the-mill rom com dressed in Apatow prestige? Shawn Glinis and Stephen Kohlmann get to the bottom of this summer’s indie darling in the latest version of Civil Discourse.
Shawn: The Big Sick—the Judd Apatow-produced rom com about comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon’s burgeoning relationship—was immediately met with effusive praise. Every film festival review posed it as a precious, heartfelt genre subversion that centers around some pretty heavy stuff—basically, cut from the Apatow cloth sans white dude. Although I’m not the hugest Kumail fan (his persona, be it from Silicon Valley, Comedy Bang Bang or Twitter, has always come off a bit too smarmy for me), I was hopeful. I was expecting it to be the second coming of Obvious Child. It’s not. I didn’t hate it, but I came away from it nonplussed and with a surprisingly critical mentality for such a pleasant little date movie.
Steve, how were you coming into the movie and what were your first impressions?
Stephen: Like you, Shawn, I was never the biggest Kumail fan, but I maybe appreciated him a little more than you. I came into this film with a lot of context, in that Kumail and the story of his real life courtship with his wife was something I always found very endearing through the various media (mostly podcasts) he and his fellow comic friends have discussed it (even if Kumail is not there to discuss it himself, his friends always seem legitimately joyful to talk about Kumail and Emily). I also came into The Big Sick as a huge fan of its director Michael Showalter, who both in front and behind the camera is, I feel, a classic candidate for the Academy of the Underrated. So, I was very excited for this film. I was loving it as I watched it, although having let it sink in the for the past few days, I've been able to recognize its minor flaws.
Overall, though, I'm still very satisfied. On the surface, I thought everybody's performance was superb. I know Ray Romano will get a lot of those "Whoa! He can actually act!" accolades, but I thought Kumail was excellent playing himself. In autobiographical films or TV series, the person playing themselves often falls prey to self-parody, but that certainly did not happen here and I didn't get the sense that Kumail was screaming, "Hey guys, it's really me!!!" If anything, I feel like he shirked the smarmy character you often find him to be in other movies or shows. Also, I was astonished at how well the SOLD OUT suburban Milwaukee cinema crowd received the film.
Shawn: I agree that Kumail shed the smarm for a characterization that was more charming. But maybe that was actually the problem for me. I didn’t need his signature sarcasm, necessarily, but I needed him to actually be a worse person. The character never really showcases how dark he can be—something that would’ve benefitted the dynamic between him and Emily—he hints at it briefly, but the worst thing he does is withhold information from her because of a deep familial tradition that Emily couldn’t possibly understand. The film seems to go out of its way to say, “Hey, he’s actually a great guy!”
The way Emily ends up taking Kumail back made me uncomfortable. While she’s comatosed, Kumail does a standup bit where he basically bombs because seconds before getting called on stage, he finds out Emily’s condition has worsened. In effect, he eschews his standup routine (even though it’s a super important night for him, professionally) to talk stream-of-consciousness about Emily and how he fucked everything up and how he wished he had done things differently. This scene, while I have some big problems with it, ends up being a turning point for the character. We can tell just how important this (basically failed) relationship is to him. But the film ends up ditching it as character development, instead using it as collateral so that Emily can find out that Kumail actually is a good guy. She ends up finding the performance via YouTube and decides he’s worth taking back. That felt like a plot devise/shortcut out of a much dumber romantic comedy I’ve seen a dozen times. If the film was interested in how they ultimately get together, I would’ve found it much more interesting if it would’ve been able to devote more time to that recouping process. Her seeing the video sends a weird message, specifically to men, about how as long as you have considered your faults and admitted them to other people, you deserve to get that person back.
Of course, The Big Sick, at 124 minutes, didn’t have time to tack on another 20 to develop that last leg more, which leads me to another problem I had. Perhaps my biggest issue is that the film wanted to take on way too much. I understand the importance of developing how Kumail’s cultural background influences his relationships, but the film was obviously much more invested in that than the central relationship between him and Emily. There were aspects, like with the assigned dinner dates, that would’ve benefitted from some editing. We didn’t need to see this scenario 18 times to understand it. And sometimes those went on unnecessary digressions, like when he ends up at Vella Lovell’s doorstep. I found myself asking why we were spending time here. Because of this subject matter, it’s hard not to think of it in comparison to Master of None. But unlike The Big Sick, Aziz Ansari’s show is able to take 30-minute-long tangents about his family without losing focus. Its episodic structure allows for honing in on specific ideas without feeling tethered to a central plot.
Also, to quickly go back to the serious standup scene, have we not hit peak saturation of these moments in movies and television? Between Louie, Obvious Child, Tig Notaro, Mike Birbiglia and Funny People, it has lost its potency.
Stephen: I can certainly see why you feel the way you do about Kumail's characterization—there's virtually no unforgivable character flaws and living in fear of his familial (and cultural) traditions might seem like a crutch. However, I don't think it's simply a case of using that as easy character development. The Big Sick is such an auto-biopic, with Kumail playing himself in a film about his very real experiences from a decade ago, and having been written by Kumail and the non-fictional Emily. The film the audience is experiencing is a first-hand account of how the characters experienced the actual story, which granted, is told mostly from Kumail's point of view. And while the real context may seem like a convenient way for me to defend any of The Big Sick's character development flaws, I don't think that they take away from the broader messages in the film.
It's easy for me, a white guy who grew up in Milwaukee whose largest cultural and familial traditions involved a half-court press from my grandmother asking me if the person I was dating was "German and Catholic," but the bigger story of The Big Sick isn't so much the love story between Kumail and Emily, but an exploration of what family actually means. While Kumail's biological family life erupts after he finally has the courage to reveal that he's in love with a non-Muslim, non-Pakistani woman—a big step for him that folks who weren't born into that culture probably can never fully understand—he's also bonding with Emily's parents, who, despite their own domestic issues, fall in love with Kumail despite the insurmountable horror they’re experiencing together during Emily's illness. All of the relationships in this movie matter (including the relationship Kumail has with his comedian friends) and make up a much larger picture.
Beyond that notion, I certainly feel that Emily has agency, even though I agree her character's development is bit light. She has control over what is happening and I think her reactions to Kumail before and immediately after her coma are the appropriate reactions of somebody who has been hurt. I think back to the scene at the party, where they both admit to being in love with each other (or having "intense mutual feelings"), and that the argument they had when she discovers Kumail hasn't told his family about their relationship doesn't signal the definitive end of their relationship: it was repairable before she got sick.
Which is why, by the time Kumail has his breakdown during his standup set, the real feelings he has for her, which reflect the feelings that they mutually had for each other, are genuine, and I think it makes total sense for her to see that set online and know that their love is still real, not that he's simply a good guy and she should like him because he's a good guy.
And I can see your point in thinking we've maybe hit peak saturation with serious standup scenes, but I also feel that you could make that argument about how any art form is used as a device in films and television. I think that we're in a new era where standup comedy is finally being recognized as a serious medium on the same level as literature, songwriting, painting and filmmaking. How many times have we seen one art form used in great works of art to emphasize how people are able to express themselves? I don't know if it's lost potency so much as we're finally seeing standup comedy used as a device for expression, especially for (not to speak for you) people who follow a lot of comedians on podcasts and on social media, so it might seem like a lot to fans of comedy. Personally, I'm thankful for seeing more of it on screen. Except for Showtime's I'm Dying Up Here, which uses serious standup comedy scenes to a disgustingly excessive degree, even if it is a show about standup comedy.
Shawn: That’s a valid point, that maybe the comedy/bombing scene didn’t work for me because that environment of seeing comedians, while it’s certainly quite popular, is still novel. If I were to frame it in the same way I would writer’s block, perhaps I’d be less critical. It just gets tired because the stakes are always the same—an audience’s letdown—but in the abstract it could just be considered someone being bad at their job, like screwing up a presentation at work.
Staying in the comedy arena, you mentioned Kumail’s comedy circle and how those relationships with his friends are significant. I completely agree that the film treats those relationships with concern, but I kept wondering why. Whatever it did to develop Kumail’s character wasn’t worth the time it was stealing away from his relationship with Emily and/or her parents. Again, I think it had too many ambitions for its own good and ends up being stretched thin. It was as if it wanted to be Funny People and Master of None and a standard rom com, but also it wanted to be Don’t Think Twice. If this was an Apatow film, rather than just being his production, I shudder to think how expansive it would’ve run, giving these disparate subplots additional dedication. The extra riffing alone would’ve padded on 12 more minutes!
The New Yorker’s Richard Brody had an aptly titled piece called “The Bland Likability of The Big Sick” where he articulates the film (and its characters’) generic feel—be it during heavier moments about family and culture or outright comedic passages. He says it abstains from feeling individual or intimate for the sake of being likable. That was my experience as well. Despite The Big Sick having the initials “TBS,” it’s not very funny. I mean, I remember laughing during the film, but I can’t remember any funny jokes (save for one absolutely hilarious joke about 9/11, which even that, as Brody mentions, feels shoehorned in rather than a joke that gels with the characters involved). It was like going over to someone’s house expecting some labored-over, delicious, homemade pizza but instead they snuck in a couple high-end frozen cheese pizzas. I ate the hell out of ‘em, had a great time, but man, I will not remember those pies, nor did I learn anything about pizza during the experience.
Jacob Knight, a film critic for Birth.Movies.Death. who, like most, was enthusiastic in praising The Big Sick, said this is a film we need right now to showcase how “love Trumps hate” and compares its necessity to that of last year’s opus, Moonlight. That is not the film I watched. The cultural weight of The Big Sick is pint-sized, downgraded in a film that had too many irons in the fire, and the romance is content aiming for charm over intimate details. The most poignant and precise thing about the movie was the relationship between Ray Romano and Holly Hunter’s characters as Emily’s parents. They’re by far the most developed characters in the film and their dynamic feels so lived in. At one point, they get into a heated discussion in a hospital lobby and Romano, after being insulted by her, tells Hunter he doesn’t need to hear anything else she has to say at the moment. “I’ll play the greatest hits in my head from memory.” His delivery makes this line sizzle, and we immediately have an understanding of the foundation of their relationship. There is no other scene in the film as strong, none that will sit with me like that one has. This is not a film we need. It’s a better than average date movie.
After I left The Big Sick, I couldn’t help but think about it juxtaposed with Funny People. It’s also an Apatow-based film about comedians and a life-threatening illness. What I love about Funny People is how vulnerable the film is. It feels like Apatow is exploring territory he’s afraid to look straight in the eye (mortality, a friend’s mortality, no longer being young, losing people, etc.). A fiction professor I had in college had an adage that he would incessantly preach: write what you don’t know about what you know. The idea was to explore the possibilities of your world that you haven’t experienced yet; think about the choices you would make in those scenarios as a way of reflecting on who you are now. That’s what Apatow is doing in Funny People. As you mentioned, The Big Sick is an auto-biopic, drawn from very specific lived experiences. I can’t help but think that the film’s desire to hit so many subplots and checkpoints—whether it’s Kumail’s comedy circle, the depth at which it depicts his family or the need to show us a detailed three act structure of him and Emily’s enduring relationship—is a symptom of adhering too closely to the more oft-quoted advice to authors: write what you know. Adapting your own life story can easily translate into being your own worst editor, wanting to get it all on screen, rather than having a scrupulous eye for what will mean the most to other people. In other words, with The Big Sick, I wanted to see a movie about romance with some very unlikely and uncommon obstacles. I wasn’t interested in seeing the true story of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.
Stephen: Those are all fair and valid points, and I echo many of your sentiments (that "TBS" line was also a killer). Ever thought of pursuing standup comedy?
You keep mentioning Master of None, and I think your comparisons to The Big Sick are right on, as Aziz Ansari explores similar territory in his show—which I think is a brilliant, hilarious and astonishingly touching series. With that in mind, I would have loved to have seen The Big Sick stretched into a Netflix (or other smart network/streaming service's) series. But when you consider how successful The Big Sick has been at the box office, it has immense cultural impact that most entertainment sitting on the fringe wouldn't have.
I'm a bit reluctant to bring up My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but it's a good example of an indie film that was better than your average rom com that transcended the art house cinema crowd and became a massive global success. It's hard to believe, but that film's crossover appeal meant that people who wouldn't ordinarily go for "ethnic" premises in their films crossed the proverbial line and accepted, for a fleeting moment in pop culture, a rom com that wasn't completely WASPy. Society still has a long way to go, and I'm not saying My Big Fat Greek Wedding or The Big Sick will "Trump hate," but I can see the point Knight is trying to make, albeit with extreme hyperbole. These films won't change the world—or totally whet the appetites of film fans hungry for substantial rom coms—but the idea that I can see The Big Sick in a sold out theater in the unapologetically right-wing community of Waukesha, WI, and everybody is clearly enjoying it, means there's at least progress. As long as Kumail and Emily avoid the temptation to write a sequel...