The bastard in me clings to the idea that when you're alone, as we all fundamentally are, few things are more cloying than the sight of two people falling in love. It's only worse (according to this same bastard) when the specific attributes of the people doing the falling—beauty, wealth, talent, success, geniality, compatibility, etc.—make you feel even less worthy of the love in which they so ostentatiously bask than you already do.
Nevertheless, to paraphrase a popular meme of the recent past, the romantic comedy has persisted. Most examples are abysmal and insulting, but as with sitcoms and Top 40 pop songs, the defining characteristic of most rom-coms is how indistinguishable they are from one another. They're so similar, in fact, that it makes you wonder (as with sitcoms and pop songs) whether it's the inviolable architecture of the form, which is no more dramatically complex than the intermission sequences in a game of Ms. Pac-Man—Act 1, they meet; Act 2, the chase; Act 3, junior—that sends people flocking to see them year after year.
And yet. When one lands properly—with the right cast, the right variations, and the right relationship to the cultural moment—the romantic comedy is elementally entertaining. Because of, not in spite of, the very characteristics outlined above, the greatest examples of the form have the power to make you yearn for the emotional well-being of imaginary strangers who are better looking than you. And in my case, they vanquish the inner bastard, revealing the enormous, impossibly soft, hand-woven long-staple plush cotton bath towel that is my true nature.
Which is why I was welling up with tears through my laughter before The Big Sick even got to the sad parts. Kumail Nanjiani, the film's cowriter and star—perhaps you know him from Silicon Valley?— has no such hesitation about the form.
"I love rom-coms," he told me. "I really do."
This conversation took place on May 18, a few hours before Nanjiani and his wife and screenwriting partner Emily V. Gordon presented the premiere of their film, which is about their relationship, which was both derailed and weirdly saved by the onset of Gordon's mysterious and rare illness (which is now under control, though not entirely vanquished), at the opening-night gala of the Seattle International Film Festival. Anyway, there they were, in a hotel conference room, utterly genial, warm, funny, and excited that this movie of their lives turned out so well.
"I have to work on not almost tearing up any time someone compliments our movie," Nanjiani said. "I have to work on this."
I asked Gordon whether, since she's a character in the film (played by Zoe Kazan) but doesn't appear on-screen, there were any elements of their actual lives that were off-limits from her perspective.
"We tried not to hold anything back," she said. "There were little details. And I do think in movies like this, the details kind of make it. But there were little details that I initially..." Gordon then turned to Nanjiani and added, "I'm much more of a boundary person than you are."
Picking up her cue, he explained: "Emily literally said, 'This is just for us' about a bunch of things."
"But what we found," Gordon said, "is that we wrote so many different drafts that eventually stuff naturally falls out. And that's the stuff that wound up being just for us."
"We reclaimed it," said Nanjiani.
"We reclaimed it," said Gordon.
(Sorry, but they're really lovable in real life.)
"I learned to get a little less precious about the stuff as time went on," Gordon said. "But also, I found I got to keep plenty of stuff because the script we ended up filming had a lot of really cool details that never would have been in our actual lives—ideas other people had or bits of our own creative license. So it ended up working out exactly how it should have."
"Emily in the movie is someone who's very strong," Nanjiani added. "There are certain parts of her that she doesn't want to reveal, understandably so. And then at the end... [to Gordon] I think this is an issue that you had in real life, right? You want to always be strong and then suddenly you're in the most vulnerable situation and people see you like that. And that was very hard for you."
"Because somehow to be physically unwell," Gordon said, "that's a vulnerability. I'm fine with emotional vulnerability all day long. Physical vulnerability really was hard for me, and I didn't want anyone to ever see me sick. So I had been sick in real life for a couple of months before I was hospitalized and would literally hide it from Kumail. What a weird thing to do. Experiencing that, and then getting broken down to where people are having to help me shower only months later... But now, suddenly, it's become a thing that a lot of people know about. So now I'm vulnerable in this new way; I have to be okay with everyone knowing that I have this kind of rare condition and I was really sick at one point in time and I'm still grappling with it. But having gone through the experience and learning the lessons of it's okay to be physically vulnerable, I'm more equipped for everything."