Collateral attractions: Zoe Kazan and The Big Sick [spoilers]

At first I wasn’t going to see this because it was being sold as a rom-com, a genre I generally don’t enjoy. And then I saw a clip from a scene in it on a late night talk show and laughed so hard I woke up dad on the couch, and so planned to see it. And then I got the sense from RL South Asian female friends that they were neutral to negative about it, so I was going to wait till it came on television. And then I had the very strong feeling today that I needed to get away from my computer screen and the news cycle, and it was $5 day at the cinema. So I went. The film was really perfectly cast, full of non-stop great performances, from the supporting cast as well as the leads. But still, and as so often, I had mixed feelings, leaning toward the positive. I liked it more than I didn’t like it, which is why I’m bothering with a review.

The “based on real life” plot: A Pakistani American comic, Kumail Nanjiani (played by himself) is busy developing his standup comedy audience, watching youtube vids when he should be saying his five-times daily prayers, and avoiding the arranged marriage with a Pakistani woman that his family is planning for him. He meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) when she heckles him during his standup routine, and that very night, he begins to fall for her. Although their persona and sexual attraction is instant and potent, both have emotional reservations. Kumail tries to play it both ways with predictable results. When a catastrophe occurs that brings Emily’s parents to town, he’s forced to confront his lies to Emily, his parents, and most of all, to himself, not just about marriage, but also about his life in general. In the end, so the implication of the film, all’s well that ends well. This kind of film demands the ending it got. The real life happy ending of Nanjiani’s relationship with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, happened with even greater velocity. So I am factoring that piece out as a result of genre and not really worthy of discussion. Would these two really be a good match? Wasn’t Kumail in the film just marrying his strong-willed mother? And mother-in-law?

Full disclosure: I had a similar conflict with my parents. Not over marriage (the axis Nanjiani wrote about) but over religion (it’s also mentioned briefly in the film that Islam is part of the baggage that Kumail is conflicted about). Long term readers know that my parents are/were devout members of a conservative Lutheran sect, and that I converted to Judaism. I also hid this decision from my parents for a time, and weaseled out of potential revealing situations, and then finally told them, whereupon ensued a lengthy, wounded, punishing silence from their side. So the scene where Kumail confronts his parents at the dinner table after the truth comes out was extremely poignant to me; it was a funny version of a conversation I also enacted, and I saw my family in the scene near the end with Kumail’s parents in the car as well. I don’t have any difficulty understanding his motivation or his strategy — I spent a year and two summers avoiding weekends at home when the Eucharist was being offered in church. I “came out” at the point at which it was impossible to stay hidden any longer.

In the end, I reacted to the film mainly through the prisms of (a) being a woman and (b) my own experiences of what happens when an irresolvable conflict over family identity arises and (c) my political commitments.

On the first issue (women) — I was really worried after the first part that Emily was playing a manic pixie dream girl, something I’ve had no time for since its eruption in the late 1990s. The chief features of the MPDG are some kind of obvious signification of girlishness as opposed to womanhood (in Emily’s case, the big eyes, the shy smile, and the frailty); a quirky personality; weird problems that paradoxically make her more rather than less attractive; and the narrative function of allowing the (usually depressed) male who falls in life with her to develop more fully as a mature being. Note that Zoe Kazan is on record as finding this expression misogynist; I’d assert against this statement that it’s not the expression that’s misogynist, it’s the type, which recurs frequently and is a construction of the male gaze. Arguably, Emily in The Big Sick has all these features. She’s saved by a hair in that she actually asserts herself and refuses to let Kumail take advantage of her when she realizes what’s going on — and because we often see her not looking her best. However, I didn’t understand why Kumail fell in love with her. But in the world of the MPDG–troubled man romance, such things are not typically explained. The film instrumentalizes the character of Emily as the tool of Kumail’s growth, but I ended up deciding it didn’t matter as it didn’t interfere with what I took to be the main concerns of the film. In other words, I ended up not thinking the film was a rom-com, so I cared less about the romantic aspect of it.

On the second issue (family conflict) — I thought this was the strongest part of the film, and done really accurately, if not always sensitively. It is a comedy, after all, and it’s written from Kumail’s perspective, and despite his attempt to keep serious matters light — “always with the comedy” — he is obdurate, first passively, then actively, that he will not allow his parents to select his partner. I think this is a type of conflict that is particularly frequent in immigrant family constellations, but it’s not unusual outside of them, either, and it’s what gives the picture its universal appeal. Parents sacrifice for their children, often at great cost, and then the children grow up to be, well, who they are and not what their parents had dreamed. I also find this particular means of resisting expectation (going along but not saying anything until there’s no choice) to be a characteristic of many men I have met over the years. The Big Sick portrays both of these things in a Pakistani American mood, which is more charming than exoticizing. The Nanjianis seem like a typical American family, something that Kumail tries to question humorously in the introduction to his one-man show, but which is nonetheless true. In the end, the film doesn’t construct the Nanjianis as tyrannical or ridiculous, which stories written by children sometimes do — Kumail takes their concerns seriously and the film presents them sympathetically. It’s clear that Kumail loves his parents. He just can’t be other than he is and they can’t be other than they are and somehow they have to reconstruct their relationship past that insoluble conflict.

Which leads me to the third issue, which is about the question of stereotype and balance and my politics. I do think there’s potentially an issue when a white US viewer (me) laughs at in-group stereotypes about ethnic minorities. Particularly these days, it’s not easy to be a Pakistani American speaking publicly and this film points that out pretty clearly. There were jokes that I laughed at and then thought, wait, should I be laughing at this? And there was also at least one point where I thought, I didn’t understand that but I bet it’s an in-group joke. (I can’t remember the moment but it was early in the film.) Moreover, I can see why a Pakistani or Pakistani American woman might roll her eyes at this film, especially if she were herself looking for a traditional marriage.I’m familiar with a parallel impatience in some Jewish circles about Jewish men who complain that they can’t find women but refuse to date Jewish ones, and in some hyper-conservative Christian circle as well. The film isn’t willing to consider a match-made marriage for Kumail as a reasonable possibility for even a second, because Kumail the character and Nanjiani the person rejected it, and as someone who grew up expecting to choose my own mate, I have a built-in predilection to sympathize with him that is unfair to the other side of the question. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t argue as harshly in these directions as Hadley Freeman has, for two reasons.

One is that I think she exaggerates the extent to which the film denigrates the Pakistani women that we see Kumail meet. I thought these scenes were superfluous and a little mean, insofar as that, even apart from the question of race/ethnicity, I find it uncool to laugh at the person who is making herself vulnerable and at least trying, particularly from the perspective of the person who’s rejecting them. These women are better people than Kumail, not because they’re following the rules or making their mothers happy, but because they engage with a situation that Kumail interacts with only as a refusenik. At least two of the “prospective brides” come off really well, and the first one, who doesn’t, seems to have been chosen as a candidate specifically due to her capacity to accommodate Kumail’s X-Files love and general nerdiness. Even if he apparently doesn’t care whether his partner shares his interests, as Emily’s rejection of his taste in movies is clearly no obstacle, this is a loving act from his mother, who isn’t just throwing random women at him. None of the women are obviously unsuitable, and the one who seems most suitable in temperament, Khadija (Vella Lovell, who I guess is not of Pakistani descent), turns out to have hated the episodes she saw of X-Files. It’s an open question to me how Kumail feels about the women who are “dropping by” for dinner with his family — as he doesn’t actually look in detail at any of them. He doesn’t fail to respect them so much as he ignores them. And to me the regular deposit of photos in a cigar box was a sign of conflictedness more than of condescension. The film shows that Khadija, who is willing, is as exhausted by the whole thing as Kumail, who is not. As the film hints, her son’s failure to respond to any overtures may also be an increasing embarrassment to Mrs. Nanjiani — but again, at least she’s trying, and also worn down by the situation despite her rock-hard determination to find her son a wife.

The second, and potentially more important one for me, is that the biggest victim of Kumail’s inability to confront his family, or himself, is Kumail. Khadija is “in demand” and I assume the other women would be as well. Kumail’s parents and brother and sister-in-law are married to their satisfaction. Emily seems perfectly prepared to live her life on her own. The one who’s really unhappy and stranded in the film is Kumail. The Big Sick also makes this amply clear. Emily’s most important function for him isn’t that she serves as love object, it’s that she gives him the necessary kick in the ass to grow up already. Which is why the character runs a lot of danger of stepping into MPDG territory — until we consider that the film isn’t much of a romance.

Two of our fellow fans have reviewed the film, both more enthusiastically than I have: SueBC and Knightleyemma. Check out what they had to say!

~ by Servetus on August 2, 2017.

19 Responses to “Collateral attractions: Zoe Kazan and The Big Sick [spoilers]”

  1. Interesting perspectives. Thanks for linking to my post. I’ll drop by again tonight when I can read again and comment.


  2. I’m not reading yet because I haven’t seen it and I’m really excited to. I’ll be back.


  3. Thanks for the thought-provoking review. I too was glad that this wasn’t a typical slick rom-com, even though there was a boy-meets-girl type scenario and it was very funny. And I liked the idea that it was based on a real-life relationship and written by the real couple. Like you, though, I also wondered why the film Kumail fell in love with the film Emily, as it really wasn’t very obvious. (I found myself nodding a lot reading your review, as I agreed with things I hadn’t really thought much about.) I enjoyed reading the interview with Zoe Kazan that you linked to as well. I hadn’t read that one before and I find she has intelligent things to say.

    I liked the film for the idea that it was highlighting an intercultural relationship and attempting to show that love is love regardless of the differences and the obstacles. I was focused more on that positive aspect and had thought less about the seemingly negative bias shown on the subject of arranged marriage and traditional views. But I can see how the latter portrayal can be a bone of contention.

    For me personally, I am coming from the perspective of a family that has interracial, intercultural, and inter-religious marriages. In my life, I really value the diversity I have in my personal and work relationships. And because of that, I think that I inherently have a bias towards diversity in relationships – and this probably colours my view of the themes of the movie. Now mind you, I also believe that the freedom to choose from all possibilities includes the freedom to choose traditional relationships.

    By the way, my friend I was mentioning is seeing the movie tonight with her partner. I told her I would demand a full report!


    • Zoe Kazan is smart, even if I don’t always agree with what she says. I think one of her problems is that she has the perfect physique and face to be cast in these roles, and also that the type itself isn’t unreal, in the sense that there are women who are trying to be MPDGs in real life — maybe more of them since the type was popularized in the 90s. But / and: if the photo at the end of the film was accurate, the real Emily is at least half a head taller than the real Kumail; physically, she seems like less of an MPDG than film Emily was.

      I am very biased toward diversity, and mildly biased against marriage (which wasn’t portrayed in the film but seemed to be where this was going, and we know the real-life relationship went that way), and as my mother would have said, I was absent on the day they handed out the romance gene. I’ve never been romantically inclined, although I’ve been in love, and I’ve never wanted to be married. My parents had a very “non diverse” marriage (if that’s a term — they came from the same town, the same ethnicity, the same religion, the same social class, the same educational level, etc.) and since leaving home I’ve had relationships that are more diverse than that. My own life has become a lot “whiter” since moving back here, but my professional life has been heavily diverse over the years and my friends are people of many ethnicities, religions, social backgrounds, political persuasions, etc.

      It’s a complex topic, but although diversity is attractive to me, I wouldn’t be “pro” any particular relationship just because it was ethnically diverse. (And, of course, there are many kinds of diversity in a relationship.) One thing I have learned is that in most of the successful long-term relationships I’ve observed (whether marital or not, whether “inter”-anything or not) the partners share a lot of common assumptions or factors that end up being able to outweigh any stress-causing differences. So, I guess I’m mostly pro-“relationships that work” and if theirs is a relationship that works, good for them. The film didn’t really demonstrate that in much detail beyond their sexual attraction and inability to say goodbye to each other.


      • Definitely this is a complex topic and I’ve found it interesting to think about what my biases were going into the film. Not that I necessarily think that every relationship has to be diverse (although opposites do attract!), but more that I am “pro” there being an openness to it.

        My friend (who is South Asian) was telling me that “East Is East” is worth checking out (if it’s available somewhere). It’s a 1999 British comedy/drama about a Pakistani man and his English wife and their seven children. They run a fish and chips shop in England. He wants arranged marriages for his children, but they don’t see their lives the way he does and so rebel against the traditions. The film won a BAFTA award for outstanding British film. .


        • My understanding is that there’s research to the contrary, e.g.,

          That said, even when opposites attract, there’s that point in every relationship where all the funny things that charmed you about a partner and were exciting because they were different start to annoy (at least that’s been my experience). I guess in my own case I am open to it on some levels but not on others, and I admit that this has to do with my own position on not wanting to be married. I date people who would be unsuitable marital partners in various ways because I’m not headed there, and it’s also true that I have dated people whom I would never introduce to my parents, mostly because of my parents’ prejudices. (So maybe I have that in common with Kumail as well.)

          Thanks for the film tip — I’ve added it to my list of things to look for some time!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Anecdotally, based on me only (lol), I married someone who is opposite on all 4 Meyers-Briggs categories! It doesn’t always make for a conflict-free existence, as I’m sure you can imagine!


            • I’ve never been in a relationship with anyone whose MBTI type I knew. I do think people have varying levels of conflict tolerance and also varying levels of their own flexibility. I enjoy or at least don’t mind divergence, but only to a point. But I think at this point, anyway, I have a good sense of what things are automatic dealbreakers (e.g., someone who is really extroverted), so that may increase my affinity level with people I go out with just because I self select.

              But I also mean things that seem really small but turn into bigger issues as a relationship develops. A classic for me is spending habits. This has been a conflict area in every long-term relationship I’ve been in (in different ways). I’ve also realized that social class is an outcome in part of things like this. I enjoy conflict over “what is a good book?” but I don’t enjoy it over “how much should we spend on dinner?”

              Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for your thoughts. I’m really curious to see this one!


  5. Has a similar take to mine on Emily (Zoe Kazan), but sees it more positively than I did:


  6. I learned something from this one, too:


  7. […] Here. The goal is to enhance the attractiveness of the company as go-to for independent film creatives. Read more about FilmNation here. Apparently they distributed The Big Sick, which I enjoyed. […]


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