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The Big Sick: a film with much more appeal than its name

Sunday, 3 September 2017  | Sarah Judd-Lam

I’m just going to put it out there: The Big Sick my favourite rom-com in years, and I’m not alone. While I’m always up for a cheesy chick flick, I can probably count on one hand the number of romantic comedies I would actually rate as films in their own right.

So what do I like about it? First, it’s based on a true story, pretty rare for its genre, which means the relationship depicted is actually rather realistic in its ups and downs. Second, it’s part of an emerging body of work led by non-white actors and comedians (think Aziz Ansari’s Master of None on Netflix and Benjamin Law’s The Family Law on SBS) that is bringing much needed diversity to our screens. Finally, it deals with some pretty serious subjects – racism, unemployment, relational breakdown, major illness – with a perfect balance of humour and compassion. You laugh, you cry, you laugh again, and, at the end, you just feel generally good about life.

Written by, and starring, American-Pakistani comedian Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick recounts the ups and downs of a couple negotiating cultural differences and health problems in modern day Chicago. It has a pleasantly gritty, indie feel, despite featuring some big names (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). Overall, it just feels satisfyingly contemporary, and manages to be relatable for a millennial like myself while also engaging for my parents’ generation. My husband and I went to see it with my dad, aunt and uncle, all of whom have completely different tastes in film. We all adored it.

Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, a struggling stand-up comedian and part-time Uber driver whose traditional Pakistani parents are working overtime to find him the perfect match. When a white girl called Emily heckles him at a gig, it is love at first sight, even though Kumail knows his parents will never accept her. After engaging in the awkward to-and-fro of modern dating for a while, the parent issue becomes too much. Enter ‘the big sick’, a sudden onset of serious illness that completely changes the course of their relationship. While Emily’s life hangs in the balance, Kumail sticks around and befriends her distraught parents, both realising, and proving, his genuine love for her.

It’s pretty hard to find a romantic comedy with a decent message, but this one takes the cake. It condones honesty, tenacity and love through thick and thin. I really resonated with Kumail’s fraught relationship with his family’s cultural heritage, not because of my own experience, but because of the many friends I have who, like Kumail, are second generation migrants and who have grappled for years with split loyalties, somewhat resenting the cultural expectations of their parents and community, while feeling more at home in Western society where they are still considered ‘other’. I also feel for Kumail and Emily - as someone who also has a partner from another cultural background to my own, and who has experienced the pain of disapproval from some relatives. In a multicultural society like Australia, cross-cultural relationships are becoming increasingly common, so it’s timely to see them explored and normalised in film.

Kumail’s support of Emily throughout her illness also highlights the importance of sticking by loved ones through the hard times, ‘in sickness and in health’. It’s not a glamorous picture, but it’s one of the only times I can recall this aspect of a relationship depicted realistically on screen, complete with all the ups and downs, the hopes and doubts. Throughout the film, it is clear that Kumail and Emily’s relationship, while by no means perfect (there is a lot of arguing, swearing and general selfishness), is not just about the excitement of sexual attraction, not just about warm and fuzzy feelings, but about genuine connection and commitment to each other, to the point of sacrifice. It’s rare to see this kind of model of relationship in a romantic comedy.

I, for one, hope this refreshingly honest, multicultural comedy will pave the way for many others like it.

Sarah Judd-Lam was raised an avid film buff and enjoys everything from foreign art-house dramas to cheesy blockbusters. She is passionate about social justice and has a particular interest in the interface between faith and just action.

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