Romantic comedies (or rom-coms) like “Pretty Woman” or “Say Anything” are often very charming and enjoyable films. The problem with rom-coms is that many of them rely on the same narrative formula; two people falling in love, facing some kind of set back, and then coming back together in the end without much else happening in the film.
The repetition of this formula across rom-coms makes many films in this sub-genre feel predictable and unrealistic. Fortunately, “The Big Sick” (released this July) is a fresh take on how to make a romantic comedy and bares several useful lessons for future projects in the sub-genre.
Co-written by husband and wife Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, “The Big Sick” is based on the truly unique story of how the two fell in love. Set in Chicago, the film starts out with Kumail (playing himself) and Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) meeting at Kumail’s comedy show and quickly developing a romantic relationship.
Just when things are getting fairly serious between them, the expectations of Kumail’s traditional Pakistani family and Emily being put into a medically induced coma significantly complicate matters.
“The Big Sick” is a truly unique addition to the romantic comedy sub-genre because it features an interracial couple and presents realistic challenges to the future of Kumail and Emily’s relationship.
Like most movies that come out of Hollywood, rom-coms tend to be white washed and provide little to no space for people of color.
By featuring the relationship between Kumail (who’s Pakistani) and Emily (who’s white), “The Big Sick” subverts the rom-com trend of exclusively focusing on white couples.
Considering that interracial dating is a growing trend in the U.S., it only makes sense that rom-coms present and normalize the image of interracial couples.
Often in rom-coms couples form and fall apart for rather unrealistic reasons; a sudden epiphany, a melodramatic cheating scenario, and so on. In contrast, the challenges that Kumail and Emily encounter more closely resemble those that a real relationship would face.
First, there is Kumail’s traditional Pakistani parents, who expect him to have an arranged marriage and don’t approve of him dating a white girl. In an attempt, not to alienate either his parents or Emily, Kumail lies to both parties about the other; which ultimately causes more problems than it solved.
It’s often the case that the expectations of one’s family (especially cultural expectations) can drive a wedge in a relationship. The film depicts Kumail’s challenge of navigating this circumstance beautifully.
One of the major obstacles to their relationship is that Emily comes down with a serious infection and is put into a medically induced coma.
Real issues like Emily’s illness are seldom touched upon in rom-coms because they are often feel-good films where the only lows are associated with the state of the relationship.
“The Big Sick” places Emily’s coma at the center of the drama, and doesn’t shy away from showing its real impact on Kumail and her parents.
The fact that “The Big Sick” is representative of the diversity of today’s America and takes on real and complex issues is a large part of what makes this film so unique and enjoyable.
We need more romantic comedies that break new ground and are emotionally challenging instead of ones that are just funny and cute. Hopefully the success of this film will inspire future rom-coms to break out of the reliable formula and add diversity and emotional depth.