What makes for a good romantic comedy? To be honest, I may be the wrong person to ask, since I have it on good authority that my narrative preferences lean towards the melancholy, if not the downright depressing. Which probably makes me the last person who should argue the qualities of good romantic comedies. Most entries in the genre strike me as manipulative, dishonest and often toxic in their notions of romance and courtship, not to mention their views on masculinity and femininity. And, last but not least, I have pretty dim views of the genre’s infatuation with phony happily-ever-after tropes.
So it may not be a huge surprise that what may be my favourite romantic comedy of the last ten years (okay, nine years – I liked (500) Days of Summer quite a bit) revolves around one of the main characters almost dying and being in a medically-induced coma for much of its running time. Nothing more romantic than that, eh?
The Big Sick (directed by Michael Showalter) took me by surprise – ironically because of how much it’d been praised by critics. If a film is liked so much by so many people, obviously there must be something wrong with it, right? Nonetheless I was fairly certain I’d like the movie, but I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d like it. A lot of this is due to its characters and their actors: the couple the film focuses on, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote the semi-autobiographic story with his wife Emily V. Gordon) and Emily (Zoe Kazan), are likeable but still believable, flawed individuals, as are their parents (played by Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher on Kumail’s side and Holly Hunter and Ray Romano on Emily’s). It is mainly the characters’ flaws that make them work as well as they do: The Big Sick is unafraid of presenting them in an unflattering light, but their flaws aren’t the creaking, artificial plot machinations of so many more generic romantic comedies, the clunkily constructed misunderstandings and fake crises of lesser films. Admittedly, the conflict between the characters is not necessarily original, and in particular Kumail’s dilemma of falling for a non-Muslim, white woman when his parents expect him to marry a nice Pakistani girl of their choosing does ring familiar, but the cast takes a familiar set of circumstances and makes it their own with beautifully specific touches, in particular from Romano and Hunter. (Shroff and Kher are given somewhat less to work with by the script, but they too do a fantastic job, humanising characters that could have been two-dimensional.)
Zoe Kazan’s role could have been a thankless one; it is Emily’s falling ill and being put in a coma that propels the largest part of the film, so she is effectively out of the picture much of the time, but Kazan makes a major impression in the first act, making Emily into a fun, smart, real presence, so that when Emily is in the coma, her absence is felt. Her breakup with Kumail makes sense, as does her hurt – but so does Kumail’s inability to move on once the life-threatening extent of her illness becomes clear. His tenacity is partly driven by guilt; when Emily finds out the extent of his commitment issues and his resulting dishonesty, he lashes out at her with cruel, hurtful words, fuelled in no small part by him knowing that she is right to feel hurt and deceived. More than that, though, the first half hour of the film makes a good case for why Kumail and Emily are good with each other – or would be, if Kumail finally managed to be honest both with his romantic interests and his family about his own wants and needs.
In a lesser film, Kumail’s tenacity and loyalty to a woman who’d broken up with him for well-justified reasons would immediately win Emily’s heart once she’s woken up and recovered, the way he slowly, steadily ends up winning over her parents. (Arguably, much of what could be called the courtship of this particular romantic comedy is between Kumail and Emily’s parents, but this comes across less as him trying to convince them that he’s good boyfriend material for their daughter than as a slow, prickly, engaging and finally well-earned process of getting to know, respect and care for each other.) Instead, when Emily wakes up from her coma, she is still very much in the same place she was when she fell ill: she sees the Kumail who drove her away with his dishonesty, and his trying to redeem himself (however conscious and whether to her or to himself) literally didn’t happen for her. Showalter’s film does finally position its characters for a happy ending, but it is not the unambiguous happily-ever-afters of so many other romantic comedies, and it comes with the knowledge of sadder possibilities – which makes it infinitely more earned than the happy endings of romcoms that simply fulfil the supposed demands of the genre.
In the end, this is one of the reasons why The Big Sick wins me over where so many romantic comedies, well, sicken me: if the characters just follow a path set by the laziest examples of the genre as if it were a self-evident truth, from Meet Cute to wedding bells, then I feel like I’m not watching a story so much as a clockwork, something mechanical and lifeless, dressed up to look human but coming across as all the more creepy for this. In order to woo me, a romantic comedy has to not only pay lip service to tragedy and sad endings, they can’t just be plot points on the way to the preordained climax: like Schroedinger’s Cat, the state of the relationship must be in question until the box is opened. And when the romance is revealed to be alive and well? Even a misery guts like me can appreciate that sort of a happy ending.