The Big Sick
Director: Michael Showalter
Writer: Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter
Race, Religion and Cultural Differences in The Big Sick
Cultural background and religion are two of the biggest driving forces in The Big Sick. It is this that causes Kumail to originally hide Emily from his family, while it is his own split between his family and their traditions and culture, and his own personality formed by being raised in America which are at odds with each other. This could easily feel like a contrived plot device, as you always need something to force the couple apart in a rom-com, however it offers a nuanced insight into American cultural identity. At one point, his mother reprimands him for not being grateful for her matchmaking attempts, especially after all she’s done for him such as bringing him to America for a better life, to which he questions why did she even bring him to America if she wants him to continue living like he’s in Pakistan.
A lot of humour is also derived from the state of religious tensions in America, such as when Kumail and his brother are arguing in a cafe to the shock of a white family behind them, they feel the need to state, “we hate terrorist too!” to humorously help combat the paranoia that all Muslims are extremists. On the other end of the spectrum, Ray Romano's character shows the white liberal guilt of someone trying to show he is totally cool with Muslims in the painfully awkward conversation starter “I’ve always wanted to talk about 9/11, with… people”.
One of the most interesting portrayals of the dilemmas Kumail faces however comes from his family. Although some critics have written off this part of the film as being packed full of two dimensional stereotypes (such as his mother’s constant subtle parade of female suitors), it is actually far more nuanced. Whereas a more conventional film would see them demonised and Kumail make a heroic rejection of their enforced values for his own freedom, it is in fact a more subtle portrayal we are given, where Kumail understands he cannot reject his family or their culture. Instead no resolution is come to, however it is implied that eventually time and the normalisation of the situation will give reconciliation.
So, uh, 9/11.
I’ve always wanted to have a conversation with…
Is The Big Sick Any Good?
The Big Sick is an incredibly rare breed of a film. It is a rom-com where both the romance and the comedy are equally brilliant and entertaining, while also having added depths. Too often the genre is dominated by films where, even the good ones, are mainly throwaway affairs bolstered by star casting and audience desire to have a lighter cinema experience that is neither Oscar-bait nor in your face action. But why can’t we have funny and entertaining love stories that also let us take something more away with us?
The Big Sick manages to tackle divisive issues of religion, identity and relationships in modern America, while still maintaining its status as a rom-com and not becoming a preaching exercise. No matter who you are, it is hard not to recognise the situations, especially within the various family dynamics, but it still all feels fresh and not cliched. The story itself is enough to hold on and keep you entertained for a couple of hours, but Kumail Nanjiani’s experience as a comedian shines through and the whole thing is genuinely funny too.
It is doubtful that The Big Sick will even get a look in come awards season, but it brilliantly achieves everything you could want to set out to achieve. What’s not to love?
Is The Big Sick a True Story?
Those who have previously seen Kumail Nanjiani’s stand-up, or stayed until the end of the movie to see the photographs during the credits, will be unsurprised to find that The Big Sick is based on the true story of his courtship with wife and co-writer Emily V Gordon. Having both created the screenplay together it is perhaps closer to the true events.
Kumail’s parents did want him to have an arranged marriage so he hid her existences from them until she contracted a life threatening lung infection that led to her being put into a coma. The stream of women his parents arranged for him to meet however is perhaps slightly exaggerated, with Kumail’s parents actually living in a different city and being keener to send him photos and calls about various women. The middle section where Kumail battles against Emily’s parents however is mostly added for drama, as, despite awkwardness of being thrust into her family unit, her parents were generally very kind and accepting from the off.
And the final truth of the film? Well of course that Kumail is a stand up comedian who has gone on to see great success. These moments backstage are perhaps some of the most real in the film, with comedians Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler all taking roles not dissimilar to their real life personalities. And anyone who has ever experienced bad Fringe theatre will recognise Kumail’s cringe inducing attempt at a more meaningful show.
What Happens in the End of The Big Sick?
The ending of The Big Sick is perhaps where the brilliance of the film truly lies. Emily’s illness and Kumail’s relationships with both his and her families sets the film up for either the perfect Hollywood ending, or an anti-genre ending of heartbreak but with the characters learning something about themselves. What you get however is a delicate finale somewhere in between the two. As Emily’s illness worsens, Kumail cannot help but throw away his opportunity at getting to the Toronto Comedy Festival, by only being able to talk about her tragic situation when he gets on stage. After managing to diagnose her adult-onset Still’s disease from the un-healing bruise on Emily’s ankle from the month before, she wakes up from her coma. Later, having a party to celebrate, Kumail is invited by Emily’s parents and tries to win her back, but instead of a beautiful reconciliation, nothing has changed for her while in her coma, so she pushes him away.
Kumail still then decides to go to New York anyway, however tells his family his opinions before he leaves. There is no great acceptance from them, however taking advice from his friends however, he refuses to let them exclude him and decides to continue to preserve until it becomes normal. Despite disagreeing with him and unable to bend to his viewpoint, his family are also unable to put their views before their son, leaving the situation in a mess, but with hope that time will be a healer. Later, in New York, Emily is shown in a crowd at Kumail’s show heckling him.
What is the Disease in The Big Sick?
Not only is the fact that Emily had to get induced into a coma real, but many of the details of her illness are too. Throughout much of the film her illness goes unnamed as the doctors simply did not know what was wrong with her. Initially, it appeared she had a very bad cold or pneumonia. After going for an X-ray and passing out during it, she was taken into the emergency room and put into a medically induced coma and received eight days of intensive tests.
She was eventually diagnosed with Adult-Onset Still’s Disease, also known as AOSD, an extremely rare kind of arthritis that can stop major organs from shutting down if left untreated, and had caused fluid to accumulate in Emily’s lungs and stopping her breathing. Despite being currently incurable, the autoimmune disease is reasonably manageable after a proper diagnosis.
Let me give you some advice, Kumail.
Love isn’t easy.
That’s why they call it love.
Kumail Nanjiani & Emily V Gordon in The Big Sick
Despite knowing that The Big Sick is based on a true story, you may not actually know that much about Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote and stars in the film as himself, and Emily V Gordon who also co-wrote and is played by Zoe Kanzan in the renamed character Emily Gardiner.
Emily Gardiner is known for co-creating the live show The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail as well as its later TV version for Comedy Central. She has also written a book called Super You, as well as writing for The Carmichael Show and for a range of online and print publications.
Her husband and often co-writer Kumail Nanjiani is known for his work in the HBO series Silicon Valley, as well as being the voice for Prismo in Adventure Time. He co-hosted The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail and starred in the series Franklin & Bash, as well as hosting two podcasts - The Indoor Kids and The X-Files Files.
Arranged Marriages & Love Marriages in The Big Sick
One of the biggest points of tension in Kumail’s family in The Big Sick is the idea of an arranged marriage versus a ‘love marriage’. Having coming from Pakistan and a culture where most people marry through arrangements and introductions made by their families, Kumail’s mother is determined for the same thing to happen for her son, much to his dismay.
To circumvent his resistance, his mother takes to inviting young suitors round who happen to be “just passing” through the neighbourhood to a series of dinners. Despite never accepting a suitor, Kumail also doesn’t outwardly push back on his mother’s role to keep the peace. At these dinners we are given anecdotes of people like Kumail’s brother, who has a very happy marriage following an arrangement, while also hearing about more distant relatives who have been exiled from the family.
Overall we’re given a delicate portrayal of the arranged versus love marriage debate. It is clear that arranged marriages can have a place, preserving tradition and allowing potential suitors to meet and scope each other, not dissimilar to online dating. Ultimately however, it is Kumail’s desire to follow the relationship he has stumbled into and the acceptance required from his family which is more important.
Can you imagine a world
in which we end up
Certificate & Age Recommendations for The Big Sick
Tonally, The Big Sick is quite a light film. Although it deals with illness, race and sex, it is still at its heart a comedy and generally most younger viewers will not find it too heavy.
That said, The Big Sick does have a certificate of 15 in the UK and is rated R in the US. This is primarily due to strong language and a few sex references. This shouldn’t be particularly challenging to most teenagers however. Any mild reference is easily countered by the importance of an entertaining and touching film that poses important questions and tackles big ideas in an accessible way.