“I’m sorry about my coma,” I would say in a sing-song voice. It was a mock apology delivered whenever someone happened to mention a disruption to their lives during The Big Sick we all endured. I had the easy job during the six long weeks of my coma, while they put their lives on hold for someone my doctors warned they should give up all hope for.
They didn’t of course. And they didn’t need to. Instead, my loved ones continued to support me during my coma and throughout my difficult recovery.
My dark-humored refrain referenced the obvious fact that my coma was something that none of us wanted or could possibly have controlled. It wasn’t until The Big Sick, however, that I had heard a similar joke coming from a movie character.
That’s not entirely coincidental, since the the line was co-written by the real-life sufferer of The Big Sick, Emily V. Gordon.
Kumail Nanjiani plays Emily’s stand-up comedian boyfriend…Kumail Nanjiani (who also co-wrote this hilarious film). He does an excellent job playing himself. No, “What’s my motivation?” there.
Emily is portrayed by the very winning Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of the great, but controversial, film director Elia Kazan.
This is not a true review of The Big Sick. I’ll leave reviews in the very capable hands of Andrew Spitznas, The Secular Cinephile. I will, however, be giving my opinion (as I already have).
Spoiler alert: Though I endeavour to avoid major spoilers, by the nature of this piece I inevitably reveal plot points. If you don’t want anything to be revealed, go stream The Big Sick and read this afterward.
Go on; you’ll enjoy it. I’ll be here when you come back.
Since this isn’t a traditional review, I’ll spare you the set up. Here’s the official trailer:
Okay, okay, here’s a quickie rundown anyway. Boy meets girl. She falls seriously ill and is placed in a medically induced coma. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry.
Not enough? Alright, a little more. A struggling Pakistani-born stand-up comedian falls in love with a white college student, as he strains against heavy parental pressure for him to submit to a traditional Pakistani arranged marriage. Kumail feels torn between the woman he deeply loves and the family he could lose because of it.
Emily suddenly develops a mysterious, life-threatening illness. Her doctors put her in a medically induced coma in a desperate attempt to save her life.
The Big Sick is a comedy.
And, yes, I laughed uproariously throughout. And did cry, as well, though I’m far from an easy touch. The tears are well-earned, as you grow to deeply care about the characters. The scenes feels real because they were written by the people who lived them.
Indeed, I’m sure I would’ve loved The Big Sick even if it had been made before my coma. Yet I won’t claim that my personal experiences had nothing to do with my deep love for the movie.
When Kumail awkwardly deadpans, referring to the parade of doctors briefing him and Emily’s parents on the state of her condition:
That was very reassuring, wasn’t it? Apparently, there are good and bad comas. And the kind that they put her in, the medically induced coma, are the good kind of coma.
Her folks look at Kumail as if he had just sprouted a third eye…as I let out a belly laugh.
It’s a scene of dark and hilarious awkwardness. Yet it has a different color for someone who was in the bad kind of coma. I laughed again as I contemplated what the line said about my own situation.
The line that echoed my own sardonic coma joke comes toward the end of The Big Sick. As the recovering Emily prepares to go on a solo jaunt, her understandably protective dad (Ray Romano) quips, “You feel a coma coming on, call us.” Emily’s response, “Dad, it’s too soon.”
You can see why a recovered coma patient would adore this film.
Yet there were marked departures from my own experience. First, Emily was — at least before falling in love with Kumail –obviously not steeped in geek culture. I’m with Kumail in disbelief that she had never seen Night of the Living Dead until their first date.
More seriously, as Emily is in recovery outside of the hospital, she explains to Kumail that she doesn’t feel the stereotypical transformation such severe illnesses are supposed to inspire. I completely sympathize with her disinterest in getting up early enough to appreciate sunrises. (And, no, I don’t either.) Yet, my illness(es) have indeed provoked just such a tectonic shift in my mentality. I certainly needed that slap upside my head.
Perhaps Emily was too young (and non-neurotic) to require such a reckoning.
Spoiler alert: The Sequel. I have to reveal a twist in Emily’s diagnosis that has a particular resonance with my own experiences. The Legionnaires’ disease that put me in a coma was triggered by immunosuppression from the medication I was taking for my rare autoimmune disease, dermatomyositis. Emily’s autoimmune disease caused what had seemed to be a virulent infection.
Like me, she wrote off the symptoms long enough for her (also rare) Still’s disease to cause heavy damage. In my case, it didn’t really matter, since my first diagnostic test for muscle damage came back normal. (It was only through my own persistence that I was eventually referred to a rheumatologist and retested.)
At any rate, now that The Big Sick is such a big hit — one of the highest-grossing independent films of 2017 — Emily V. Gordon has emerged as an advocate for Still’s disease sufferers. Had you ever heard of it until now?
For Keith’s part, he undoubtedly most identified with Kumail and Emily’s parents, helplessly waiting in a hellacious limbo as their loved one lies dying. A couple of times Keith started to correct hospital-related details, only to remember that people actually were able to walk freely about in the emergency room. And, oh, that’s right, you were given a private room in ICU.
Minor details might start to fade, but life-threatening illnesses leave indelible memories that stay forever.
The Big Sick: For the Religiously Sickened Too
Up to this point, I’ve emphasized the aspects of The Big Sick that personally resonated with my own very big sick. But the movie holds many goodies for secularists of every stripe, as well.
After Kumail rejects a beautiful and charming Pakistani bride candidate, his parents confront him. He’s forced to admit:
I don’t pray. I don’t. I haven’t prayed in years. I just go down there [in the basement] and I play video games.
Earlier, we had watched as he set the timer on his phone for five minutes while he futzed around and practiced with a cricket bat.
Shocked, Kumail’s father demands:
You don’t believe in Allah?
I don’t know what I believe, Dad, I don’t. And I can’t marry someone you find for me.
Kumail doesn’t understand why they would bring him to America, but expect him to to live his life as if they were still in Pakistan. It’s a moment that many Americanized immigrants can empathize with.
Decoverts from every religions will hear echoes in Kumail’s anguished conflicts with his conventionally pious Muslim family. While Kumail doesn’t express outright disbelief, he has at the very least joined the growing ranks of “nones.”
And perhaps Kumail was already taking the first steps toward an ultimate rejection of traditions that no longer make any sense to him.
It’s not for nothing that The Big Sick just won the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Comedy and has been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Original Screenplay category. What starts out as a charming and quirky romantic comedy ends up exploring unusually deep terrain amidst the laughs.
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