THE BIG SICK’s Big Problem Why does it delve into stereotypes so much?
The Big Sick is a romantic comedy. There’s a girl, a guy, a meet cute, a problem, a romance. You know the tropes well enough by now, and The Big Sick knows that. In adapting the real-life romance of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, The Big Sick is able to play with those genre conventions in interesting ways.
Firstly, it knows that you’re probably expecting the two love birds to get along wonderfully, only to have the girl’s family flinch at Nanjiani’s culture. But, well – spoiler – that doesn’t happen, The parents and the boyfriend get along really well, so well that it takes the girlfriend by shock.
It’s also a movie with tremendous heart. Every frame is lovingly put together, every emotion feels real. Nanjiani is a surprise. If you’ve seen Silicon Valley, you know the dude is tremendously talented. You probably didn’t know he could act, since people somehow think comedians aren’t actors, but I digress. If you had any doubts, they will be washed away by his performance in The Big Sick. Similarly, the film is a wonderful reminder at how great Ray Romano can be. Their chemistry together makes the bulk of The Big Sick a tremendously fun experience.
What doesn’t make The Big Sick a tremendously fun experience is the other half the movie, the half where Nanjiani is dealing with his own cultural issues. He doesn’t seem to be into his culture, and that’s perfectly fine. He seems suffocated by it. At the same time, the film feels like it short changes everyone attached to his culture.
I don’t want to imply that this was all intentional, I don’t think it is. But a lot of this feels like an after thought tacked on to what the movie really cared about, which is the central romance and Nanjiani’s relationship with Emily’s parents.
But that’s just it, the other half of the movie feels like a second class citizen, and it’s a shame because there are some interesting nuggets in this half that are touched upon but not fully explored. See, Nanjiani is a pretty big asshole in this movie. He gets called out for being selfish a couple times, and that’s because he is.
He is afraid of telling his parents how he feels about their religion and their culture of arranged marriage. I don’t blame him, telling your parents that you don’t believe in everything they do, disappointing them and crushing everything they had ever thought for however many years you’ve been on Earth is not an easy thing. It’s also not an easy thing to realize that who you are doesn’t jive with what the most beloved people in your life want for you. It’s a terrifying thing.
There is a problem that emerges from that fear, however, and that’s where the selfishness comes from. All of the girls that are arranged to meet with Kumail are well-meaning girls who are living in the system. They’re all making an effort. For instance, one girl tries to connect with Kumail by appealing to his love of The X-Files. Instead, that attempt at connection is played for laughs. There are other girls who go to his family’s house and wait for him for what seems like hours, looking forward to meeting a guy they think could potentially be their husband. The movie makes it feel like they’re all stuck in a backward culture while Kumail is the enlightened one.
The Big Sick largely glosses over this, until one specific girl calls Kumail out. She’s the “cool one” that’s “normal.” She does magic and seems Westernized, and Kumail seems to enjoy her presence. Enough that we see her multiple times. She thinks things are going great, and then when he walks her home he tells her it isn’t going to work she breaks down crying, telling him how she just wishes this whole process was over. I get that, I’m also going through that process. It’s tough, and the last thing you want in this gauntlet is someone who isn’t taking your time seriously.
It’s an interesting and unique beat that we really don’t see in romantic comedies. Here’s a modernized version of an ancient system of marriage, and here’s someone who is trying to make things work and someone is who is not taking it seriously, wasting everyone’s time. But then nothing happens. Kumail goes on to be an asshole, trying to prove to Emily that he deserves her because he stayed by her side while she was in a coma and completely oblivious to what was happening. It’s only when she calls him out that things begin to click for him.
In fact, the only thing that is fuel for is him angrily telling his parents that he’s battling a 1,400-year-old culture. There’s certainly a frustration there, but there’s also no regret at wasting all these women’s time. Compounding things is that his parents are written like stereotypes: overbearing, conservative, angry. They disown him.
Sure, that’s a beat that works. We’ve seen him confide in his brother that the system might not be for him. And it’s already been established that Kumail is terrified of losing his family, and that he’s in this weird in between that he’s unsure about living in, but those are threads that are – once again – gently moved aside for the central relationship between himself and Emily’s parents. It makes the entire confrontation with his parents feel way too cramped.
We finally see him air his frustrations, yes, but we don’t get to see or fully understand his parent’s. His mother says something about sacrificing for him, but it’s vague what they actually sacrificed. There’s acknowledgement from Kumail, but again we don’t know. It comes out of nowhere, and his parents aren’t allowed the development to properly make their point.
The result is that his culture looks outdated and ugly. The film makes almost no attempt to let his parents go through any kind of observable arc. The only way we’re supposed to know that they’ll get over it is a line from Emily’s mom, who talks about how her marriage to Emily’s dad angered her parents, but that they got over it. We’re supposed to apply this to Kumail’s parents, but it feels hollow. Why not let us soak in the parents? Why not take us through the cultural pressure of making sure your child is married, of how desi society looks down on parents who can’t get their kids married? Why not let us see them realize their folly?
Why are they instead silly caricatures used for comedic relief about 90 percent of the time? Not only does it harm a good 40 percent of the movie, it’s terrible representation. Near the end of the film, when Kumail does partly reconcile with his parents, the entire situation is played out like a joke. Kumail’s dad jokes about being forbidden from hugging him. It’s a joke trying to get across how unemotional desi parents can be. They care, but they don’t always show it. But again, it’s a joke. Once again, the parents are used as jokes from sterotypes.
I fully understand that The Big Sick is helping a lot of people, it’s letting a whole lot of people see themselves in a movie for the first time. People are seeing their situation on screen, and that can be extremely cathartic. At the same time, The Big Sick has a big problem: Half its characters are treated like stereotypes.
Trust me, I get it. The Big Sick is a true story, and Nanjiani and Gordon are telling their story how they want to tell it. It’s a sweet story with a load of heart, but it’s also a story that could have really dived into cultural assimilation, but it just doesn’t have the time or the priorities to do so. Instead, we’ve got an extremely sweet romantic comedy that doesn’t do much except confirm everyone’s stereotypes about this Indo – Pakistani culture. It makes Kumail look like the enlightened one who emerged from his culture unscathed.
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