So the other day, I watched the romantic comedy The Big Sick! I’d been wanting to see this movie for a long time, basically since it first came out and was immediately heralded by critics. Now, if you know anything about the movie, you know that it’s the true story of the early days of comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, which was complicated by the fact that, soon after they began dating, she fell into a coma. And overall, I really enjoyed the movie! It was definitely the best contemporary romantic comedy I’d seen in a long time. I’m a fan of Nanjiani ever since the first time I heard this standup bit of his:
The spoilers are coming up… are you ready?
Ok so, in the movie, shortly before her dramatic illness caused her to become comatose, Kumail and Emily (played in the movie by Zoe Kazan) actually broke up. In the film, the breakup is initiated by Emily, after finding out that he had been dating her behind his family’s back because they expected him to marry a woman of their choosing.
So the thing that squicks me out about the movie is that, despite the fact that they were no longer a couple, he continues to visit her bedside for the entire duration of her coma.
Initially, as you will recall, this is necessitated by her urgent condition and need for someone to sign consent forms to give her the treatment that would end up saving her life. Which he does, because it’s obvious that he still cares for her. And even after her parents show up, who are aware that Emily currently hates his guts for being ashamed of dating her, he continues to haunt her bedside.
I give the movie credit for this: when she wakes up from the coma and sees her shady ex-boyfriend hovering over her, grinning and expecting a hero’s medal for sticking by her side, she recoils. This movie is based on a true story, and I think that’s a very “true” reaction!
But of course, over time, she realizes that he really loves her, and he comes clean to his parents, and they both get together and the credits roll showing photos of the real-life wedding of Kumail and Emily. Honestly, I’m rooting for them. Sidebar: does anyone root against showbiz couples? I’m rooting for Pete and Ariana, who’s with me??
Because this movie is a true story, I do feel kind of icky critiquing it. I mean, isn’t it a bit weird to say something like, “A COMA?! What an ORIGINAL idea!” when it’s like, um, Emily V. Gordon actually endured a prolonged coma. Sorry! And how can you critique the characters without sounding like their bitchy co-workers over the water cooler: “What is UP with Kumail? What is he THINKING?!” And I’m torn about it especially because you know how much I love Kumail-gets-his-porno-stuck-in-the-VCR-Nanjiani! Howwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwever…
After thinking about the movie for days (which shows, I think, the strength of the movie), I realized that I was quite a bit… creeped out?… by the fact that Kumail imprints this entire romantic story arc upon the unconscious Emily.
It’s not unlike the Intimacy Seeker, if you think about it. By the time Emily blinks her eyes open, Kumail has gone through an entire reconciliation, forgiveness, and rekindling of romance with her, none of which she was aware of. She wasn’t participating in this at all!
I just feel really gross about the narrative built around this unconscious woman, especially because it doesn’t actually involve her at all. A woman who is unconscious and therefore, completely passive, is almost fetishized. From Sleeping Beauty to the popular 18th century robotic statues of the same name, Brock Turner, unconscious women seem to be easier to strip of their agency for male pleasure. It’s one of those things that gets creepier and creepier the more and more you think about it.
Between her recuperation and rejection of Kumail, and the end of the movie when she shows up at his comedy show with the apparent intent to reconnect with him, Emily is painted as an unsympathetic character. Her parents not-so-subtly hint that she should give Kumail another chance because of everything he did for her while she was in a coma. None of which she can appreciate because uh, SHE WAS IN A COMA! None of which she ASKED for, either, considering her last interaction with him was when she stormed out of his apartment declaring that she never wanted to see him again. So no wonder she was super stoked when he was one of three people she saw when she opened her eyes again after nearly dying! Uh, that was SARCASM, in case you couldn’t tell.
But of course, the happy resolution depends on the fact that Emily didn’t really mean it when she broke up with Kumail pre-coma. She softens, and follows him to a comedy club to surprise him during a set. The movie ends abruptly there, and the credits fill in the rest, showing actual real-life wedding photos of the real couple. Not only does the movie have a happy ending, their lives have a happy ending. AND YET… I can’t help but feel as though The Big Sick falls in line with many other problematic rom coms. Have they made any unproblematic rom coms yet? Despite the fact that The Big Sick was inspired by a true story, I wouldn’t recommend wooing an unconscious human being in real life. It’s not quite as distressing as While You Were Sleeping, but it’s not not unsettling either. I know it’s a little qualm to have — and it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the movie — but as much as I want to say I loved it, I just can’t.
I still love Kumail & Emily though.