So, I may or may not have mentioned this before, but I’m writing a book about Harry Houdini, and that means that I spend a few hours every day thinking about wonder. That is really what the book is about, more even than Houdini himself, it’s about wonder: How can a man who died 90 years ago inspire wonder in an entirely different world? When Houdini died, movies were silent. Radio was new. There was no television. Superman had not been created yet, Winnie the Pooh only just.
Yet, somehow, through the years, through the decades, through miraculous advancements in every walk of life — WIFI, CGI green screens, virtual reality, heart replacements, self-driving cars, Steph Curry’s jumper — this now ancient performer, Houdini, still evokes feelings of wonder and awe in people all around the world. The guy still changes lives. How does he do that with escapes that, for the most part, have become so ubiquitous and familiar that they are barely noticeable? This is the book I’m neck deep in writing, and it has pushed me to constantly reevaluate what wonder is.
Friday night, we finally saw The Big Sick. I’m not entirely sure what took us so long. Honestly, it might have been as simple as the name. “The Big Sick” sounds a lot like Michael Moore’s health-care thing “Sicko,” and there has been so much health care stuff in the news, and I don’t know.
Maybe it’s this: We have become what I would call a “Big Movie Family.” I suppose that’s what fits our particular time in life, with 16- and 12-year-old daughters. We tend to go see big movies on Opening Night. We saw Spider-Man: Homecoming* on Opening Night … and Wonder Woman … and Despicable Me 486 … and Beauty and the Beast … and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 … and The Lego Batman Movie … and Cars 3 … and so on.
*How have I never noticed before that Spider-Man is hyphenated? That’s horrifying and completely alters my feelings about everything.
These big movies — especially if they are good and fun like Wonder Woman and Guardians — tend to leave me feeling happy. When they are over, we stay for the credits because film makers now put so many teasers and kooky things in the credits (the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 credit roll is like a movie itself) … and I will watch the hundreds and hundreds of names go by and think about how much work, how much technology, how much money, how many man (and woman) hours were put into making me feel wonder.
And yet, that’s not really what I feel. I thoroughly enjoy these movies, even love some of them, but wonder is not the word. Working on this book, I have become something of an expert on the dictionary definition of wonder; I look it up in every dictionary I find.
Wonder: the emotion excited by what is strange and surprising; a feeling of surprised or puzzled interest, sometimes tinged with admiration (Dictionary.com)
Wonder: a rapt attention to or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience (Merriam-Webster)
Wonder: a feeling of great surprise and admiration (Cambridge)
Wonder: a feeling of amazement and admiration, caused by something beautiful, remarkable, or unfamiliar (Oxford)
Wonder: a feeling of surprise, admiration, or pleasure that you get, for example when you have seen something very unusual or beautiful (MacMillan)
Wonder is a feeling of great surprise and pleasure that you have, for example, when you see something that is very beautiful, or when something happens that you thought was impossible (Collins).
I have dozens more like this — they tend to use similar words: surprise, astonishment, admiration, beauty, mysterious, impossible. My favorite definition, though, is the first one I looked up, the one that showed up in my Apple computer dictionary:
Wonder: a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar or inexplicable.
Surprise mingled with admiration … love that phrase. I so admired Wonder Woman and Guardians. They were beautiful and they were fun. But, and I’m pretty sure you know what I’m about to say: They didn’t Surprise me. I mean, yes, there were various surprises in the plots, I suppose, and I was probably jolted once or twice.
But that’s small-letter surprise.
Surprise is a fragile and elusive thing. You can’t fake it. You can’t recapture it once it is gone. Gary Gulman, the incredible comedian I find myself quoting more than just about anyone else, used to do this great thing about expecting couples who didn’t want to find out the sex of their baby because they wanted to be surprised. “It’s boy or girl,” Gulman said. “One or the other. Have you have had someone flip a coin and be SHOCKED by the result?”
I love that bit. But, beyond that, “boy or girl” is big-letter Surprise, a feeling that goes beyond the odds or the probability or anything easily explained. Even if you are entirely expecting a girl as we were with our oldest daughter (weirdly, we had both had dreams that we would have a girl), we were still big-letter Surprised when Elizabeth came out. It’s the sort of surprise you can’t quite describe.
All of of which, finally, brings us back to The Big Sick. As we walked out of that beautiful little movie, I realized that the feeling I had was wonder. This movie with no special effects, no dancing Groots, no glowing lassos that command truth, no wall-climbers, no Robert Downey appearances, no mind-boggling animation and, to be honest, a plot that is familiar and without any unexpected turns, had sparked this feeling of big-letter Surprise … and the wonder that goes with it.
How? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t want to say too much about the movie because if you have not seen it and don’t know much about it, I’d love for you to see it in that frame of mind. Of course, there’s the writing … the acting … the sensitive directing of Michael Showalter … the brilliance of Kumail Nanjiani … well, you know, the stuff that makes good movies.
But the thing to say about The Big Sick is that it’s a movie with tiny marvels spread throughout, hilarious moments that are easily missed if you don’t pay attention, touching exchanges that don’t have sweeping music behind them, countless little astonishments that break your heart and make your heart swell. In The Big Sick, gestures as small as a woman putting her hand on a man’s face somehow mean everything.
When I got home, I was still in a bit of a daze and I tweeted this:
It’s now the next day, and I realize that’s exactly it — that the last time I felt this sort of wonder was when Elizabeth and I were walking out of Hamilton that rainy day in New York. The Big Sick and Hamilton have absolutely nothing to do with each other, of course, there’s nothing at all similar about them (or the amount of money I had to spend to see them), and yet somehow they both captured in me this slippery and precious emotion that so rarely happens.
I asked one of the many incredible stars of my book — an up-and-coming magician — why Houdini so captured him. He said, “I think it’s because he made me feel like any of us can do something miraculous.” Strangely, that’s how I feel after The Big Sick. That’s big-letter Surprise. That’s the stuff at the heart of wonder.