For a cinematic romance to work the audience has to be able to believe in the love for its characters, if not experience some minute facsimile of it themselves. Too often this pursued in romantic comedies by brandishing how witty, quirky and put-upon its prospective lovers are, a sort of truncated shorthand for relatability and affection. The Big Short, an autobiographical rom-com from writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon and director Michael Showalter, enacts a different strategy.
Comedic through and through, The Big Short still doesn’t shy away from a sense of reality, never entirely going fool goofball in while remaining sufficiently hilarious. It doesn’t forbid its protagonists being funny and quirky and put-upon, but it doesn’t refrain from showing them at their ugliest and most unreasonable either. More key to film’s appeal than its well-rounded characters, however, is its treatment of them and their flaws. The camera brings with it a sense of compassion, withholding judgement while displaying its subjects for who they are.
Such a phenomenon may come as no surprise given Kumail the character is Kumail the writer is Kumail the living, breathing human being, but the same sort of reserved, matter-of-fact acceptance is afforded to secondary and even tertiary characters. They’re all given the opportunity to think and act for themselves and they’re met with understanding when they screw that up in ways a more traditional romantic comedy might condemn or vilify.
I first heard the story on which The Big Sick is based several years ago when Kumail Nanjiani was a guest on the You Made it Weird podcast. Hearing Nanjiani offer a first-hand account of his experience is incredible and moving and unforgettable, and that The Big Sick even comes close to capturing the power the story has while being relayed to one of its primary participants is a testament to just how good the film is.
The realistic expectations The Big Sick sets, and therefore allows the audience to have, for its characters make them detestable, just as they make them relatable. They’re worthy of our disappointment just as they’re worthy of our affection. It’s no shorthand, and as a result, when you tune in to the chemistry between Kumail and Emily the signal comes through a lot clearer than it would were it broadcast on nothing but quirks and one-liners.