A movie called “The Coma” would have been a different film. The Big Sick’s title gives away more than its unique plot, in which female lead Emily (Zoe Kazan) is put to sleep for half the movie. The title is endearing, but its monosyllabic whimsy betrays unease. It is afraid of words like disease or infection, and it betrays a fear of language itself: it is afraid of even its own noun, sickness.
“The Big Sickness” sounds like an epidemic-disaster film, and in a way, The Big Sick is. The disaster is not Emily’s illness but the mopey, hiding speech of her Pakistani boyfriend Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani). Nothing sums up his speech better than the word “hide,” which, besides concealment, refers to the skin. His spineless speech is a second skin to him, and it is a tough one underneath its snide sensitivity.
Part of Kumail’s problem is that no one really inspects his speech, although the characters eventually react, in different ways, to his spinelessness. His parents, for example, do not know him. They don’t know that he doesn’t pray anymore, or that he sleeps around with what they refer to as “white girls.” They don’t know that he has preemptively resolved to never marry one of the many eligible Pakistani women they invite over for dinner. Kumail willingly participates in these “arranged marriage” dinners, but his willingness is external. On the inside, he is totally alienated. When Emily finds out that he cooperates with this scheme, she calls him a liar. It would have been more accurate to call him a chameleon. He hides the dinners from Emily in the same way that he hides Emily from his family, not by lying but by “fitting in.” Emily learns that she does not know Kumail, but she also learns that nobody does.
Kumail, a stand-up comic, lives with a comedian roommate whom he doesn’t respect. He can’t bring himself to suggest that his friend’s jokes are worse than subpar. Small talk with this roommate is so unbearable that when he brings Emily home one night, he gives her precise instructions for avoiding that conversation. Kumail avoids conversation in general, and his method of avoidance is comedy. When his family insists on arranged marriage, he jokes about the process rather than voicing his fears. He is terrified of marriage, but he also jokes about simple things that he should want to do without second thought. When Emily hurts her ankle, he jokes about having to take care of her. After meeting her friends, he jokes that he’s glad he liked them, otherwise he would have had to lie about it. Often the jokes in this film seem to say, “you’re lucky that I’m not as cynical as I could be.”
This sinister, half-way cynicism indicates strange beliefs about the motives of others. Kumail seems to believe that no one ever says what they think, that people always hide, and that the act of caring for another person is never not a burden. This would be the case regardless of assertions to the contrary. He would find a way to assume that the most joyful caretaker was faking it. His fundamental view of communication is to assume that the other person would rather be playing video games—which is what he does when his family thinks he is saying his prayers in the basement.
One could point out that he changes by the end of the movie, but this is where that second skin starts to look pretty thick. Kumail tries to reconcile with both Emily, who broke up with him before the coma, and his family, who finally hear about his hidden life. Neither party is much interested. (It is a merit of the film that Emily is not charmed by his dedication—“I was asleep,” she observes). Kumail has spent the whole movie growing up, but he relates to his estranged loved ones with . . . gimmicks. In each case, he arrives at the big moment with planned routines and a bag of props, like a clown.
Even more disconcerting is the path he takes to get to that maturity. As he waits on Emily, Kumail is forced to meet her family. It is ironic that while he escapes arranged marriage at home, he consents to what looks a lot like arranged marriage at the hospital, where he is continually interviewed, so to speak, by Emily’s parents. He has to prove his worth to them—they know he hurt their daughter—and they have to confirm for him how special their daughter is. It should not go unmentioned that Kumail cannot have sex with Emily at this point. This again mimics traditional courtship. The point is that Kumail unknowingly embraces the thing he hates. And it is a message of doom to a certain swath of American men: if you want to reach maturity, get an arranged marriage—or date a sick person.
The outrageous teaching of The Big Sick, then, is that a coma can save you, as Emily’s coma saves Kumail from flimsiness. One should be very skeptical of such a teaching. When illness is made charming, when a movie tempts its audience to see transformative power in disease and fate rather than in choice and freedom, when audiences leave the film wishing that they too could be made serious without having a say in the matter, and when most of that film shows consciousness to be a bother instead of a blessing, then one should be skeptical. Consciousness is bothersome because it stirs up the moral pressure of having to tell the truth to people, and the guilt from choosing, on the contrary, to hide. What Kumail really wants is to be in a coma himself. Then he could exist without the pressure of others, without the pressure of tradition, and without the ultimate pressure of speech. “Speak so that I may know you.”
Bobby Vogel studies political theory at Baylor University. He welcomes comments at [email protected].