Could there be fewer of those? Sure. But how often have we seen a family like this one, in any form of American media? And how marvelous is it that we meet a variety of these women; it would have been very easy to make them all cartoons and buffoons, distractions from his real true love, but most are genuinely charming and lovely, and when he tells one of them he’s just not looking for an arranged marriage, she asks, with genuine hurt, “So why did you meet me?” He assures her, “You deserve better than me,” being the good guy, but she’s not hearing it: “People always tell me what I deserve. It’s bullshit.”
A line like that underscores the value of including a woman’s voice in a story like this, and one of The Big Sick’s best qualities (one, it has been noted, often lacking in Apatow’s own early scripts) is that Emily is a genuinely funny character, who’ll joke as she leaves his apartment for the first time, “I only have sex once on the first date,” and who responds to his high-pressure presentation of a favorite movie with this priceless line: “I love it when men test me on my taste.” They have a pretty good thing going, in other words, but then she finds out about all the arranged brides, and that he hasn’t even told his parents about the woman he says he loves, and when she asks, pointedly, “Can you imagine a world in which we end up together?” and he can’t give her an answer, she understandably bolts.
And then shit gets real, really fast; such is life. Shortly after their break-up, Kumail gets a call that Emily’s gone into the hospital, sick with a massive lung infection that will take a medically induced coma to examine. Kumail is suddenly doing a hospital bedside vigil for a girl he broke up with – at least until her parents show up, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who breeze in like it’s the sixth or seventh movie about this couple, so at home are they in these roles and with each other. The tension between the spurner and the parents of the sprunee is palpable, and thick; “I am not sure why you’re here,” the mother informs him, cuttingly. “She tells us everything.” But over the course of those days and weeks, they grow comfortable with their daughter’s former beau, and vice versa; meanwhile, he observes the warmth between them giving way to fights and irritations, in which years of history come into play. In between, they spend a long evening together, the night before Emily’s make-or-break surgery, in which secrets are told and bonds are forged, and all three characters (and actors) reveal unexpected depths and dimension.
Seeing The Big Sick a second time, with the Sundance complaints about its duration still rattling around in my head, I did a bit of timing. Roughly 50 minutes – nearly half the movie – passes between the arrival of the parents to the point at which it turns back into a romance. Within that, the night-before-surgery sequence clocks in at exactly 15 minutes; there’s about another ten just between Nanjiani and Romano, in which we discover the source of the parental tension; and then, past that point, there is about 15 minutes between when most movies would end, and when this one does.
I’m sure any studio executive – hell, any choosy audience member – could suggest plenty of cuts within those sections that would get this movie down to the hour-forty, hour-forty-five that we expect of our rom-coms. And every single one of them would make it a lesser movie, conforming to the plot-driven strictures of too much commercial filmmaking. It would be a movie about what happened to Kumail and Emily, rather than a movie about how it happened. Those sidebars and detours, those conversations and confessions, are what give the movie its life, and its texture. Without them, cut to a “normal” length, The Big Sick is robbed of what makes it special – it’s just another bad rom-com. And we’ve got plenty of those.
“The Big Sick” is out Friday.