The choice between love and family, almost synonymous with each other, can also be oppositional, especially when family may not approve of your love. The Big Sick expertly grapples with confrontations between cultures and assimilation—through comedy.
The film centers around a love affair between Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), a Muslim-Pakistani stand-up comedian, and Emily (Zoe Kazan), a psychology student. The main conflict of the film is between the love Kumail feels for Emily and his duty to his culture. Muslims pray five times a day, yet Kumail has ceased praying. In Kumail’s culture there are arranged marriages, but he’s unwilling to marry someone who he’s barely met (like most people…or Westerners, I should say).
Kumail keeps up pretenses because he’s afraid of losing his family. Believing that his traditional Pakistani family will never accept an outsider, he becomes a compulsive liar to everyone, from his brother, to his friends, to Emily. Note: There are red flags to know when a guy is lying. They include the two-day rule, which is avoiding each other for two days, and not meeting parents. Note: Not meeting parents tends to be a major red flag. These are all excuses used by Kumail, to shield Emily from his parents—which makes sense because parents are weird.
At its heart, The Big Sick is asking what it means to change countries, and cultures. It’s also asking how to identify love. These questions are most demonstrated in the arranged date scenes, as Kumail’s mother (Zenobia Shroff) pretends that another Pakistani woman has happened to be driving through their neighborhood and happened upon their home to meet Kumail in a chance meeting. As a running gag throughout the film, it demonstrates how uncomfortable the idea of an arranged marriage is for him. The normally quick witted comedian is whittled down to a five-year-old child staring down at his peas, wondering how he’ll eat them before his mom punishes him.
As the film progresses and Kumail faces the, unfortunately typical, racism directed against Pakistanis—he questions what love looks like in marriage. For this, he has two examples, his parents, and Emily’s parents: Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter). As Terry says, “You don’t know the person you truly love, until you cheat on them.” While Terry and Beth have a troubled marriage, they have a choice to be in that marriage—while Kumail’s parents are happily married with little choice. Romano and Hunter add amazing complexity, as a frayed couple trying to remain together for the sake of their daughter. Just as Kumail’s mother and father (Anupam Kher) both underpin the comparison being made to Emily’s parents, by often agreeing with each other. The film is at its best when it is pushing the subtle dynamics between these two marriages.
A viewer could watch The Big Sick and think that there’s a judgment being made about arranged marriages. I don’t believe that. Kumail’s struggle isn’t that he thinks the practice of forced marriage is backwards, it’s the idea that this practice isn’t for him, and that by admitting this he will be disowned by his family.
Still, as each woman drops in to essentially apply for the job of being Kumail’s wife, his parents still act as an example of this system working to great effect. These “drops-in” are the highlights of the film, as they add comedic tension to his family’s wishes for him to be a good Pakistani Muslim, and pushes Kumail to make a choice. Sometimes the film feels as if it’s taking too long for Kumail to make an “obvious” choice, to defy his parents or to not love freely. But this isn’t an obvious decision, and making that clear is what gives the film its drive.
While The Big Sick is based on a true story, and relates the pains that can come when assimilating to another culture, it is first and foremost a dark comedy. Nevertheless, the quick one liners by Kumail are always mitigated by the specter that, much like any comedian, the jokes are only hiding the truth. As Kumail floats through the film, lying to anyone who tries to pin down what path he wants to take, he’s left with the knowledge that at some point—he has to choose what world he wants to be in—the Pakistani or Western—or if it’s possible to live in both….
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Photo credit: Athena Cinema