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FILM REVIEW: "The Big Sick" resuscitates the ailing romantic comedy genre

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Kumail Nanjiani (left) and Zoe Kazan (right) in "The Big Sick" (2017).
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Is it just me or does the romantic comedy always seems to get the short end of the stick?

Even when the genre’s working at its peak (think When Harry Met Sally, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Annie Hall), the romantic comedy is always a source of harsh derision and unfair criticism.

They’re too trite. They’re unrealistic. They’re all the same. They’re just plain bad

And you could argue that some, if not all of those points are true. But that hardly matters when you take into account the fact that the people behind romantic comedies and the audiences who consume them couldn’t care less. The beauty of the rom-com is that they’ve always had modest ambitions when it comes to putting a smile on your face and even welling your eyes with tears in the right moment. They’re the greatest source of crowd-pleasing joy in a cinematic landscape that demands films be “dark” and “gritty” to be taken seriously.

But there’s something to be said for a film like The Big Sick, which just opened in wide release after a hugely successful run in New York and Los Angeles. In a lot of ways, The Big Sick isn’t much different than the dozens of other quirky rom-coms that have been saturating the market ever since the term “manic pixie dream girl” entered the cultural lexicon. 

What’s interesting about the film is the way it manages to be sneakily subversive in the way it tricks you into thinking it’s gonna be just like one of those movies. But as it progresses, The Big Sick turns into something far more poignant and engrossing than another (500) Days of Summer rip-off. 

The Big Sick is the story of Kumail, a comedian in Chicago trying to break into the industry while driving for Uber on the side. Played by cult comedy favorite Kumail Nanjiani, he’s the sort of charmingly awkward protagonist that is always endearing to watch. As a Pakistani Muslim, he’s also a romantic leading man we rarely get to see in a genre inundated with bland white guys we’re supposed to find interesting. 

While his family regularly tries to set Kumail up with various women in the hopes of continuing his culture’s tradition of arranged marriages, he nonetheless strikes up a romance of his own with a woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan). Afraid of disappointing his family, he keeps their relationship a secret until Emily finds out and they break up on bad terms. 

But when Kumail finds out that Emily’s in the hospital with an unknown ailment and has to be put into a medically-induced coma, he gets drawn back into her life as he becomes her main support system. Forced to bond with Emily’s parents (played to perfection by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) and confront his own beliefs and convictions, the film manages to escape the trappings of the rom-com formula to deliver a decidedly unique take on love and life.

A film like The Big Sick works beautifully for a lot of reasons, an essential one being that it’s hysterically funny. Written by Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, the film was inspired by their real-life romance. While every joke lands and there’s a lot of humor mined from everyday situations, there’s a beating heart that makes it all resonate even more strongly. 

It’s also unafraid to explore some headier topics not normally seen in a genre known for being as carefree as the rom-com. Portrayals of Pakistanis and Muslims in the media are already scarce, and when they are present they’re often relegated to background players or stock villains. The Big Sick offers a hilariously tender look at lives too rarely seen onscreen, and the result is one of the best films to come out this year, romantic comedy or otherwise. 

The Big Sick mines its cross-cultural themes for comedic gold, managing a tricky balancing act between laugh-out-loud humor and heart-tugging emotion. It’s without a doubt the best film about falling in love while somebody’s in a coma in Chicago since While You Were Sleeping. By skillfully avoiding all of the cliche-ridden pitfalls that often afflict the genre, The Big Sick proves that the well-worn romantic comedy has still got plenty of life left in it. 

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About the Author

Keaton Bell

Born in Minnesota but raised in Oklahoma, Keaton is a senior at the University of Oklahoma...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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