Lovesickness Overcomes Muslim Mores in The Big Sick

It has been said that love conquers all. But this was a platitude created before “intermixing”–religiously or ethnically–was deemed an offense seemingly greater than murder by Muslims (not that other faiths and races don’t get equally as up in arms). Or rather, before Middle Easterners started immigrating to the U.S. and attempting to contain their children from getting “too close” to the Americans.

In the Michael Showalter-directed, Kumail Nanjiani/Emily V. Gordon-written The Big Sick, the limitations of love are explored in great depth–in addition to the notion that maybe the aforementioned adage needs to be amended to: “Love conquers all when you’re faced with the very real possibility that the person you’re in love with might die.”

But how could Kumail (Nanjiani–yes, essentially playing himself because it is after all based on his true life love story with Gordon) possibly have known this upon first meeting Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his comedy shows in Chicago? Like a melange of Don’t Think Twice and Get Out (yes, Key and Peele movies respectively), The Big Sick puts an emphasis on the importance of Kumail’s comedy career over personal pursuits while also highlighting the challenges of an interracial relationship. Though, at the outset, Emily is insistent upon not dating anyone at the moment because of her rigorous grad school schedule (she’s pursuing a master’s in psychology), the attraction between them is clearly going to make her self-imposed rule too much of a challenge to adhere to. Especially since, as she tries to leave his apartment and call an Uber driver, he’s obviously the one in the closest proximity, ergo extending their quality time together. And yet it isn’t this profession and his aspirational one as a standup comic that vexes his parents, Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), so much as that every time Sharmeen pretends that a potential wife prospect for Kumail “drops in” during one of their family dinners, Kumail does nothing to pursue any of them–simply drops the headshot they give him into a cigar box for posterity and continues to allow his relationship with Emily to escalate.

Kazan, always adept at the dream girl roles (see: Ruby Sparks), imbues Emily with a combined warmth and candor that makes her accessible as a woman that Kumail would become hopelessly devoted to–even if said devotion comes too late. But, fortunately, not too little. After a breakup spurred by Kumail’s inability to tell his parents the truth about his life–including her–Emily walks out the door and the two seemingly go their separate ways. It is only after Kumail gets a call from one of Emily’s grad school friends informing him that she’s in the hospital that things are (at least one-sidedly) rekindled. Faced with the decision to put her in a coma so that the doctors can stabilize her condition, Kumail suddenly gets a sense of what he might be losing.

This bizarre turn in getting him to reassess his love for her only gets stranger in that Emily’s sickness is the circumstance that finally forces him to meet her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). As an appropriate foil, the two could not be more opposite–Beth a Southern pistol and Terry a standardly neurotic New York type. As the trio bonds over their collective concern for Emily, a new layer of involvement is created–indicating, unfortunately, that no matter how hard we try, the people we fall in love with also come with their family. A package deal that often times you’d prefer not to pick up from the shipping facility.

Apart from the uniqueness of the family element of the script, The Big Sick has arrived in theaters at a time when the American movie industry has totally lost faith in the bankability of the rom-com. However, as the film proves, when the genre deviates from the standard and expected norms of white guy meets white girl, banal obstacle ensues, cut and dried ending concludes, there is still plenty more room for this category to grow and evolve as Hollywood is willing to do so with it. Then again, since it helps when the writers of a screenplay are this close to the story, The Big Sick might be too anomalous to base a concrete formula off of.