In 2017, IRL, truth is no longer a given in public life. Lies, and the acceptance of dishonesty as a bargaining tool in civil discourse, have become prevalent to the point of being considered the norm. And so, paradoxically, when it comes to our products of cultural and artistic expression, we value authenticity more than ever. We want our pop culture to peel back the facade, not add to its fakeness. And that goes for the genres dealing with typically lighter subject matter, like relationships and comedy, as well as the more serious stuff. On the small screen, examples abound: the songs on Crazy Ex Girlfriend expose the pitfalls of beauty standards and traditional male-female dynamics, shows like Catastrophe and You’re the Worst revel in the fact that there are no thrilling relationship ups without equally dizzying downs. Girls might have been an outlier when its protagonists started making bad decisions and having ugly sexy, but now that’s par for the course on any show dealing with romance, lust and love, or any combination of the three.
On television, a whole slew of romcoms have embraced a “warts and all” philosophy when it comes to their portrayals of dating, falling in love and staying there, and even breaking up (looking at you, HBO’s Divorce). But film has lagged behind. There are a few exceptions, Trainwreck being a great one, but so many straight romcoms still cater to outdated gender stereotypes, which usually reduce even the most likable characters to thinly written clichés. (And by “straight” here, I don’t mean hetero, although most, sadly, are also that. What I mean without a genre twist. So not a romcom set within a sci-fi or thriller or superhero movie, just a regular old, person-meets-another-person-falls-in-love-and-complications-ensue story. If I could get everyone to go watch The Lobster by selling it as a romcom, I would, but it just isn’t). On the big screen, we needed a Girls moment, a Rachel Bloom singing The Sexy Getting Ready Song moment, something for those of us who genuinely appreciate the romantic comedy format and wanted to see it evolve – with stories rooted in genuine affection and realistic challenges (rather than mind-blowing notions like, men enjoy sports and women are screeching harpies). And thanks to Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjinani, nerd power-couple extraordinaire, we have it. Their new movie, The Big Sick, which is based on their real-life love story, is a breath of fresh air for the whole brand.
In The Big Sick you get the ordinary – they meet, fall in love, deal with work and family stress, suffer through roommates and the crappy apartments we all lived in our 20s – and the extraordinary – did I mention that one of them is placed in a medically induced coma due to a life threatening infection!?! The latter lends a sense of urgency to the otherwise very relatable struggles the characters face: How much do we owe our parents for the sacrifices they made to raise our quality of life? How much should we sacrifice and even pretend when their traditions are no longer relevant to us? Is honesty or devotion more important in our relationships with our partners? Does it matter more if we lie about who we are to our friends and family or to ourselves? That’s a lot to grapple with, so we’re lucky the movie’s specialty is making the weighty and complex surprisingly hilarious (primo-example – a 9/11 joke that had my whole theater lol-ing) .
All the while, The Big Sick keeps it real. The film never cuts its characters slack when it comes to their blindspots : she calls him out for mansplaining old movies, he confronts her about not making more of an effort to understand his culture. There are no villanous “other women” or sprints through the airport to fix everything with a grand romantic gesture. Just two complicated people, plus their families and histories, not sure if they can work it out. This frank look at what it’s like to love someone and try to decide if you want to spend the rest of your life together, reminds me of one of my favorite Drake lyrics – we’re shown that Emily and Kumail are “the furthest thing from perfect, like everyone I know.” That’s what make The Big Sick such an authentic take on modern love – and in 2017 that’s the romcom we need.