The Coma Was a Come-on

The Big Sick a film by Michael Showalter.  With Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano.  *****

 The Big Sick is so much the best movie I’ve seen this summer (I was happy just to find a movie I wanted to see), so unique as a romantic comedy, so perfect in the way it’s put together, that I almost don’t ever want to see another romantic comedy.  It also seems to doom its author to being a one-hit wonder.  This story from the life of Kumail Nanjiani, which I have no doubt he’s fictionalized but which he acknowledges as basically true by using his own name in the movie and showing photos of the real people in the credits, is so perfect a slice of life that it seems to have been a gift from heaven.  You only get one of those per creative life.

Kumail is a Pakistani-American standup comedian.  Just those words tell a whole back story.  He’s the son of people who moved to this country to make a better life for themselves but also for their children.  Their first hope (how many times have I heard this, teaching at a major university?) is that their son become a doctor.  A major businessman or a lawyer would be okay.  They sure as hell didn’t want him to be a standup comedian and Uber driver, which is what he is as the movie opens.  With so many hopes dashed, their only remaining wishes are that he will be a good Muslim and marry a Pakistani woman.  Those things are non-negotiable.  So naturally he questions his religious faith and falls in love with a blond that he picks up at the comedy club.

Lots of people would fall for this blond.  Emily (Zoe Kazan) is so adorable—one of those faces that can go from utterly plain to radiantly beautiful within a matter of seconds—so funny and straightforward and interesting, so obviously taken with him, that she’s irresistible.  Kumail is similarly winning, a comedian who isn’t full of himself, who is most interested in her life, who is a basically serious if minor artist.  The problem is that, in the Pakistani immigrant world of arranged marriages, Kumail’s mother is introducing him to a new—and often attractive—woman every night.  For some reason these women bring photos, and Emily discovers the stash.

The real problem isn’t that Kumail has the photos, but that he hasn’t decided how to resolve this conflict.  Emily asks if there’s any way that he can see the two of them together long term, and he says he doesn’t know.  He says that even though he loves her.  He hasn’t resolved the problem.

I was already satisfied by the movie’s basic premise, of a Pakistani who is deeply Americanized, who loves his family but genuinely questions his religion, who is torn in so many directions.  But the movie then takes the enormous chance—apparently life took the chance—of removing the most vivid character from the drama: Emily contracts a mysterious illness, and her doctors put her in a medically induced coma.  The beautiful chemistry between the two stars, and the movie’s most lively character, disappear.  Into that void step her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano).

It seems strange that in a movie about so winning a woman, she is upstaged by another woman, and that her comedian boyfriend (or ex-boyfriend) is upstaged by a true-life comedian, but for me Hunter and Romano became the center of the film.  I haven’t seen Hunter for years, but she brings the same intensity to every role, and Ray Romano doesn’t seem to be able to say anything that isn’t funny.  He can just say his name and be funny.  The scene where the two parents go to see Kumail at his comedy club, just to relieve the tension of the situation, only to get in a fight with a bigot, and where they come back to the apartment and sit around drinking, and Beth and Kumail begin to confide in each other, are the two best scenes in the movie.  Holly Hunter can do intensity and intimacy; she can be funny and serious; she always seems perfect for her part, even in completely different roles (Raising Arizona and The Piano come to mind).

I thought this movie was wonderful and wonderfully romantic, and it would have been equally so with any number of outcomes: we don’t know if Emily will come out of the coma, we don’t know what she’ll think if she does and finds Kumail there.  I was never entirely sure whether I wanted Kumail to break Emily’s heart or his mother’s.  Many of the Pakistani women seem like great potential matches.  But I must say that, in a movie where I had no idea how it would come out, the way it did end seemed perfect.  Completely likely and utterly romantic.  If all this happened in real life it was a miracle.

I hope there is a second act.  I hope there are many more movies for Kumail and for Zoe Kazan.  But the great actor in this movie is Holly Hunter.  I hope to see more of her too.