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When Kumail met Emily and Breakfast at the Hospital (a fucking delightful The Big Sick review)

Well that was a pleasant surprise. I had actually been hearing lots of really good things about The Big Sick. I always try to not take reviews too seriously before I see the movie. I know, that’s kind of funny coming from me since I’m writing one right here, but I like to go into every film with an open mind. Well, this one was fucking delightful!

Given that I’ve been talking about the franchise and cinematic universe era a lot and hard it is to get an original movie out of Hollywood, it’s kind of weird that in the past couple weeks I’ve seen a couple of absolutely amazing non-franchise movies with this and Baby Driver.

And just like Baby Driver, I can’t recommend The Big Sick enough. In a way, this one is everything that Baby Driver wasn’t. It is the polar opposite — a very small film with very complex characters and an exploration of the intricate relationships between them. What really worked about this is that essentially an indie film. It is a fictionalized version of the early relationship between the star Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon (renamed Gardner for the film and played by Zoe Kazan).

I don’t want to give away any of the plot to the film, because seriously it’s fucking charming, so I’m going to avoid spoilers. I will say that there isn’t a ton of “surprises” in it as to what will ultimately happen to the characters. I know who Kumail Nanijanu and Emily Gordon are. I know what happened to them. Hell, I know that they actually co-wrote movie… so unless they were going to make serious deviations to their life for something subtitled “an awkward true story” there are certain directions that the film simply had to go. It doesn’t matter. This is a movie about the journey… and again, fucking delightful. 

What really works here is that even without it being a true story, this is just a charming romcom. It takes the basic romcom formula — two quirky people meet and despite themselves fall in love…. but then throw in some random complication to drive them apart and see if they can overcome it all the while their friends are silly comic relief meandering on the sidelines — and updates it. In the same way that When Harry Met Sally was “more real” than any of its contemporaries and basically reinvented rom-coms for the 1990s, or Breakfast at Tiffany’s was “more real” and reinvented romcoms for the 1960s, this does that here. And just as well.

What makes it work is that the characters aren’t really more real. What makes them work is that they’re actually rather extraordinary. The same thing is true of Harry, Sally, Holly and Paul. The characters of Kumail and Emily, while based on the screenwriters, are really people who simply can’t exist. They are the essence of problems that we see in ourselves when trying to navigate relationships in our current era. Rom-coms, at their essence are about us making sense of the anxiety of dating in our contemporary world.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s attempted to depict the complications with building a relationship in an era where emerging feminism allowed a young woman to exist as an independent force outside of the world of patriarchal propriety.  Holly was more than just the independent woman of the mid-20th century, she was fucking nuts. She was a force of nature that could not be contained by political correctness or social grace but made herself undeniably attractive by going so far beyond those standards that she seemed refreshing and admirable, even though in reality, she’d likely be a horrible person.

In the same way, Harry and Sally showed the world the complications of dating in a post-sexual revolution world which acknowledged that the standards and gender norms through which we imagine dating no longer really applied to the way in which courtship really happened… if they ever did at all (side note… they didn’t). In real life, Harry and Sally would be completely dysfunctional people. Their relationship wouldn’t work. The level of codependence mixed with psychological abuse would likely have resulted in something very toxic and unhealthy. But by harnessing those problems and reconstructing the ideals of what romance was, When Harry Met Sally invented a world of hope that showed that one could find true love even inside of the complicated world of gender politics that adults living through the 1980s had realized they were living in.

The Big Sick does that here. While Kumail and Emily are complex and quirky, they can’t be real. A relationship like theirs would likely end in the two people killing each other. Furthermore since most of the characters the film are professional comedians, the quirkiness they exude makes them seem even less realistic than the comedic characters in other rom-coms. But, the level of total dysfunctionality they all display only serves to make it seem more unlikely that they’ll be able to work their way through the complications of their relationship and all the more endearing and rewarding when they manage to.

In this case, the thematic complication isn’t so much the the emerging independence of women or gender equality. Instead, the film  poses a more post-modern question of what does romance even mean in the contemporary world of dating. Emily and Kumail are independent people and they arrive at different emotional stages in their courtship at different times… and this does not necessarily match up. Just like in real life. Furthermore, and really more importantly, the film exposes the issue that dating and romance aren’t really a two party issue. The issue is never about the emotional or sexual compatibility between the two lovers. Instead, the bulk of the narrative is about how their interracial and cross-cultural relationship fits into the separate worlds that they inhabit before they ever meet. In a multicultural world, the film asks the question of how does the interracial relationship fit into the pre-established worlds that the two individuals come from. How do family members who are not benefiting from the sexual and romantic bond of the lovers reconcile that they are essentially forced into a disruptive relationship — one that is specifically counter to their preconceived cultural notions —without having any real choice in the matter?

As such, the film presents two parallel love stories. There is the more standard romance that develops between Kumail and Emily, but this is really just a backdrop to compare against his true romantic plot with her parents, played excellently by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. The events of the film effectively substitute Mr. and Mrs. Gardner for Emily as the romantic lead for much of the story. Much as Kumail and Emily’s relationship does not develop in clean bilateral smoothness, his relationship with her parents individually develops at different speeds, and his relationship with them as a unit does not match up to what happens between him and her… or with his own parents… or, as we learn even between the parents themselves.

And so, the film strives to show that romantic relationships aren’t really about the two lovers. In fact, in many ways, the lovers may be the least important part of the equation. They’re about all the people that the lovers bring with them and the messiness of trying to make everything work as well as the acceptance that its never going to all work and trying to find a way to be alright with that. What really works here is that although the film is really about the inherent racism in American culture. It is about the manner in which that racism is internalized by the individual. And it is about the way in which those tensions affect the outward relationships (romantic and otherwise) that the individual experiences in life. But what makes the film work is that this is never overt. It is is acknowledged but it is handled naturally and organically. There are in many ways no magic bullets… no simple solutions to pull the characters through their issues… they just have to make choices and see where they lead. And since the relationship isn’t about only the two lovers, but the all the people that the lovers bring with them, the film shows that there is often no real way to make these choices without adversely affecting some part of the greater world outside of the one-on-one relationship. Relationships are disruptive. And it’s fucking delightful!

Seriously… go see this movie. Go see it in the theater. There are several reasons you need to do this. First of all, if you’re a lover of film and want the world to have more movies that aren’t just two franchise action characters punching each other in a recreation of the ways they punched each other in that one comic book or a reboot of the way they punched each other in that movie from 20 years ago… SEE THIS MOVIE. If you see this movie and it does well then people will start to make more movies like this. Not with the same plot, but with new and different ideas. Furthermore, if you’re the kind of person who likes to complain about the lack of cultural diversity in Hollywood films and the whitewashing of roles in order to make them more marketable… SEE THIS MOVIE. The reason big roles are non-ethnic is because no one wants to take a chance on them until they’re proven in smaller roles. If you see this movie then maybe one day you will see a little brown muslim man in your blockbuster superhero movie. And finally, if you like good movies… in fact… even if you don’t like good movies… SEE THIS MOVIE. It’s just kind of great. It’s adorable and charming and maybe the best thing I’ve seen so far this year. It’s the kind of thing that’s going to get some Oscar buzz, but probably won’t win (the Academy doesn’t love comedies) but it will live on as being a redefining point in its genre. And really, you just deserve to see it. Because it’s fucking delightful!

★★★★½ (4.5 out of 5 stars)

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