In my eyes, comedy is always just a few steps away from pain. The things which really makes us laugh, which make the tears stream down our eyes and our bellies hurt and our lungs gasp for air, they’re always things which are only a few lines away from becoming a tragedy. Those hilarious bursts of misfortune, suffered by ourselves or by other people. Those moments of blinding ignorance which lead us into mistakes or faux pas’. Those stories which we tell to our friends years later, still slightly embarrassed. All these things which become “material” for comedians, and almost all of them are very near to veering into sadness.
Naturally then, when a film takes that in stride, in mawkish but honest sincerity, laughing at itself up until the point it needs to cry, it reflects that fact back at you. That things that are funny are sometimes quite sad, and sometimes things which are sad are quite funny.
The Big Sick (2017, Dir. Michael Showalter) is mostly based on a true story, of a Pakistani comedian who falls in love with an American grad student. On his side, he must deal with the potential consequences of revealing this to his traditional Pakistani-Muslim family, who want nothing more than for Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) to marry a traditional Pakistani Muslim girl. On her side however, he must deal with the potential consequences of Emily (Zoe Kazan) falling grievously ill and her parents, with absolutely standout and side-splitting roles played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. All while managing a fledgling comedy career and navigating his compatriots in the stand up circuit of Chicago.
So far, so rom-com, albeit with a cultural twist. The film’s ace however, is the fact that it is a true love story. The reason Kumail’s character name is the same as his real name, is because the events of the film are loosely based on his life experiences. And not only that, but Kumail and the real Emily, Emily V. Gordon (who is renamed Gardner in the film) wrote the script together, a script about their own coming together. What the film becomes then is a recounting of a romance, with I’m sure a few extensive moments of embellishment and lies, to make the truth a little funnier and a little easier to digest. After all writers don’t directly copy reality, they often edit out the bits in between to make a story flow easier.
So you end up with quite a different experience in the film. A film which becomes uniquely more funny in its jokes, due to two things. One, drawing from the well of cultural differences for humour, rather than anger. Ethnicity and racism has become such a contentious issue in many areas of modern life, that it feels so refreshing to witness it in such a down to earth, honest way. Not as an issue to be ripped open and painfully exposed, but as an issue to be acknowledged and joked about. You don’t have to be serious all the time, in fact it’s important to remember to find the humour in things which can cause pain, because that makes them a little easier to bear.
The other thing it draws from is the unique individual experiences we all go through, the characters and personas who inhabit our life who may not be as diverse as our media suggests. I am a white straight male, and while I’ve had a lot of experience of people outside of my sex, gender, ethnicity and more, I still live in a world where a lot of the people I predominately see reflect me in quite a similar way. What the film takes from that then, is that the world feels intimately real, in a very comforting way. Kumail’s friends are mostly stand-up comics, which makes sense in a film about a comedian. His family is quite insular and traditional and proud of their heritage, which I believe is quite common in families with Middle Eastern/Eastern heritages.
People do not always mix in complex diverse rainbows, even in big multicultural cities such as the one I live in. Communities often gather, and while hopefully they don’t consciously self-segregate, they still often find comfort in the familiarity of each other. What The Big Sick does is acknowledge those boundaries, and reflect on them, and how often people stay behind them or cross them. And in The Big Sick, they cross them for love. And the story doesn’t pigeonhole itself into a corner, launching into pointless diatribes about “love is love” and berating arranged marriages. Kumail’s more honest confrontation is to do with him wanting to forge his own path in a world where people are often trying to get him to take a different course.
In real life there are no Hollywood endings. The credits never roll until you close your eyes for the last time, and even then everyone else’s films are still playing. The Big Sick never allows itself to slip into schmaltzy, grotesque cliché’s that make chick-flicks so loved by many and repulsed by others. This isn’t a film which claims everything will be perfect, that relationships are things which are carried away by magic where they lived “happily ever after”. No one is ever happy all the time. But it’s very important to be happy, to find moments where you can be happy, even if things might not work out in the future.
Most importantly, you just gotta laugh at it all, even if you’re crying.
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