by Rob DiCristino
Around here, we make a lot of qualitative judgments about film, and when we’re talking about a film’s quality, we’re usually talking about its ability to be both something we recognize and something entirely different. That first part is important — familiar themes and characters give us our bearings and pitch our expectations in the appropriate direction. At the same time, we also want something we’ve never seen before. We’re constantly heaping praise on films that redefine or deconstruct genre cliches and give us little gifts we never even knew we wanted. There are a few hard and fast rules that govern what does and doesn’t work in these cases, but there's also a lot of subjectivity. The point of all this is to say that the best parts of Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick don’t necessarily announce themselves on the surface, nor do they ring true or effective for every moviegoer. There’s no big kiss, for example, and not one person runs through a single airport. That might piss you off. But while the film denies us the usual indulgences of the standard romantic comedy, it does retain the important subtext of those moments. In a way, that’s almost better.
Enter Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), who seems like just the empty vessel for male empowerment that Kumail might benefit from bumping into. But she isn’t. She’s charmed by him, sure, but she doesn’t exist solely to teach him simple lessons about how to be a decent human being. She’s not lowering herself to his level because he has mystical Man Powers that make women swoon. They have genuine chemistry and she has a genuine line that she refuses to cross. When Kumail confesses that he’s going to choose his family’s approval over any long-term commitment to her, she breaks it off. It stays broken for nearly the entire remainder of the film. She’s in a coma for most of it, sure, but that doesn't change anything. She’s not being flippant, belligerent, or unreasonable. She’s not fielding other offers from more successful men whose posturing blinds her to the simple truth of Kumail’s understated supremacy. When she says she’s “not dating right now because she needs to work on herself,” it’s meant literally. She’s in a crisis, and no amount of dramatic soul searching on Kumail’s part is going to change that. It’s an amazing take on the “second act misunderstanding” that defines the romantic comedy genre in a shallow and frustrating way.