"Can you imagine a world in which we end up together?"

“Can you imagine a world in which we end up together?”

 

I wasn’t jumping
For me it was a fall
It’s a long way down to nothing at all…   (U2)

Love can lead us to some very strange places. Without fully realizing how we got there, we sometimes can find ourselves somewhere we never intended to be in the name of someone we care so deeply for. This place arrives less by direction than it does by momentum, and comes with no guarantees.

THE BIG SICK is about that place.

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is an up-and-coming stand-up comedian. His parents are trying valiantly to find him a suitable wife that he will accept as an arranged bride, but Kumail cannot find the guts to tell them that he really isn’t interested in an arranged marriage. Instead, he keeps placating his parents and the women in the hopes that what is left unsaid will eventually just go away.

While performing his routine one night, he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan). The two have a charming-if-sometimes-awkward chemistry, and they end up hooking-up after the show and dating for a few months. Kumail never tells his parents, though he does bring his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) into the loop. One evening, Emily learns about all the women Kumail has been proposed with and he fesses-up about everything.

Emily believes – quite rightly – that their relationship cannot be under such circumstances, and walks out on him.

Days later, Kumail gets a call that Emily has gone to the emergency room. As a student away from home, she has no one to be there for her. Not really wanting to get involved, but feeling like someone needs to step-up, Kumail goes to visit. Once there, her doctor tells Kumail that she is very sick, and needs to be put into a coma to give treatment any sort of fighting chance.

Emily’s medical emergency bring her parents Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) into town. They meet Kumail for the first time, and awkwardly thank him for being there when their daughter needed someone. However, they also know full well that Emily and Kumail were on the outs, and politely ask him to keep his distance now that they have arrived.

Kumail at first honours their wishes…but soon has a change of heart, deciding to remain as a show of support, and sit vigil alongside Emily’s parents. So it goes that all cards are laid on the table, and true love plays its hand.

 

Kumail Nanjiani

 

There are several things going on within THE BIG SICK that make it so special.

Were it only the struggle for Kumail to settle the cultural differences between what he wants and what his family expects, it would have a hard time elevating itself. The struggle to square cultural expectations with new world experiences remains a valid story in an increasingly multicultural North America, but that story has been told many times over. Each version of this tale comes with its own unique fingerprints, but the form remains the same. That form makes for a good story, if perhaps not a great one.

Instead, what we get in THE BIG SICK – helped in large part by the real events the story is based on – is the way these people are thrown into a moment of life and love together. Kumail is shown the door, but circumstance brings him back into the fray. Emily’s parents know what he’s done, so his show of support is undermined by their skepticism. The entire situation is checkered with the uncertainty of where Kumail and Emily left off when they were last face to face. Emily’s predicament would make for an interesting love story if it happened to a couple that were deeply devoted, and in a stable relationship. That it happens to a couple going through so much uncertainty makes it downright fascinating.

All involved are asked to bring some complexed emotions to life. All involved are told to carry some very heavy baggage, and never allow the weight of that baggage turn them into someone bitter who we cannot identify with. We need to be able to laugh at them, we need to be able to cry with them, and we cannot hate any of them. That’s a big ask for a romantic comedy, and the way THE BIG SICK responds to that is a testament to how well-crafted a film it is.

This is not just a story about young love, but also about old love. Old love can sometimes be undercut by indiscretion, and complicated by investment. It is every bit as all-consuming and complicated as a newfound relationship facing its first great moment of truth, but seldom examined with the level of honesty that this story brings.

We’re raised to believe that our path to love will be a straight line. Whether we find our match through happenstance or our families play a hand, we are taught to believe that once the person is in front of us, that everything else just depends on following the breadcrumbs. The truth is that it doesn’t always work that way.

We can be with and without the person we’re intended to for quite a long time. We can meet them, feel the spark, but then lose them forever. We can want one person, but find ourselves with another for reasons of pragmatism. Or we can get a great first chapter and then find ourselves reading and writing a very painful story for many years. Love comes and goes. It puts us into situations we could never fathom and gets us out of impossible circumstances. Love doesn’t care about what we want, it arrives on its own terms…take ’em or leave ’em.

THE BIG SICK is a beautiful, multi-faceted ballad dedicated to love and family. It wants us to understand that true love requires true honesty; with ourselves, with our parents, and with our partners. Sometimes that honesty will require admitting the awkwardness, the argument, or the agony. In short, true love is demanding – it arrives and remains on its own terms. It can be deeply rewarding, and potentially even save our lives…but it’s not a straight line.

Anyone who suggests otherwise is in for a big surprise.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on THE BIG SICK.