The Problem of the Coma in The Big Sick

As a cinema host and as a fan of the romantic comedy genre, I’d been looking forward to The Big Sick for months.  The star and co-writer (with Emily V. Gordon) of the film, Kumail Nanjiani, has frequently remarked on his fondness for Hugh Grant’s romantic comedies.  I hoped that Nanjiani’s clear passion for such films and his comedic talent would elevate a genre that had been in decline since its 1990s heyday.  Even if I was unsure about the film itself at first, I was confident in my co-hosts for the discussion.  I was fortunate to be joined by Dr. Colleen Lutz Clemens, Associate Professor of and Director of Women’s Studies at Kutztown University, and Ryan Hill, ArtsQuest Programming Director and stand-up comedian.  Their expertise in their respective fields enriched the conversation about a thoroughly entertaining comedy. 

Before the film, Dr. Clemens’ framed a key issue for The Big Sick and for the genre as a whole, commenting on the tendency in romantic comedy for male characters to be more fully developed while their female counterparts are more narrowly defined.  It’s by no means universally true, but the trope is fairly common.  One glaring example comes from one of Nanjiani’s favorites, Four Weddings and a Funeral.  Hugh Grant’s character enjoys a community of friends and relatives, all well-observed characters with subplots both funny and poignant.  His love interest, played by Andie MacDowell, by contrast, barely registers as a person for how little we learn about her.  When I think fondly of that film, it’s because I wish I were one of those friends, not because I identify with the central romance. 

The plot of The Big Sick presents a similar problem regarding the romance.  Based on the real-life relationship of the film’s now-married co-writers, the film’s lead female character, Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), spends a great portion of the narrative in a medically-induced coma so that doctors may treat a life-threatening infection.  Shortly before her illness strikes, she and Kumail had broken up.  She had discovered that he was secretly meeting with young Pakistani women to appease his parents’ desire for his arranged marriage.  Guilt about his deception and affection for her leads him to stay at the hospital with Emily’s parents.  As a result, the film offers some wonderfully awkward and ultimately sweet interactions between Kumail and Mr. and Mrs. Gardner, but we lose Emily for half the narrative.  The story becomes about Kumail’s growth as a boyfriend, a son, and a man, all of it while Emily sleeps.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to fault The Big Sick excessively for Emily’s absence from much of the narrative, since the central plot is based on her real-life medically-induced coma.  Nonetheless, the reality of her condition reinforces a narrative imbalance common to such male-centered romantic comedies.  Kumail is given a vibrant family background and a small community of friends in stand-up comedy.  In our discussion, Ryan Hill spoke to the authenticity of the comedian characters’ acerbic banter and their desperation for advancement.  By contrast, we learn that Emily is in graduate school to study psychology, but aside from some study montages we see virtually nothing of that aspect of her life.

To its credit, The Big Sick does demonstrate real chemistry between the lead characters before Emily’s illness; we can see that they get each other, that they make sense together, even if we know that Kumail isn’t being entirely forthright.  Emily’s not just there to appreciate Kumail’s cleverness, but to match his wit.  She’s even introduced heckling him (albeit a “positive” heckle) at the beginning of the film.  The problem with the film’s depiction of Emily arises when she emerges from the coma.  Her character becomes defined entirely by the way she reacts to Kumail’s attempts to win her back.  The film takes an hour to encourage our identification with the newly steadfast Kumail, so that when Emily is finally conscious, we might irrationally expect her to see what we have seen in him and respond accordingly.  The film denies us that immediate reciprocation, which is reasonable, but it doesn’t provide us nearly as much screen time for Emily to witness her thought process. 

Although The Big Sick in many ways replicates some of the gender problems of romantic comedy, it does at times give women characters the chance to articulate their point of view.  Emily, of course, gets to express her initial unwillingness to reunite with Kumail, but, as Dr. Clemens observed in our discussion, the film provides a more compelling example with the portrayal of Khadija, one of the women set up as a possible wife for Kumail.  When Kumail confesses to her that he is not interested in an arranged marriage, he assures her that “you deserve better than me.”  Khadija bristles at his attempt at nobility and snaps, “I’m sick of men telling me what I deserve.”  I give The Big Sick so much credit for that line as well as for a Pakistani-American man leading a romantic comedy.  I also think it’s time American cinema offered more romantic comedies where women like Khadija get their own stories told.

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