There are some cinematic affectations that immediately let you know what kind of movie you’re getting into. A wide aspect ratio might prep viewers for sweeping, grandiose visuals; black-and-white coloring tends to invoke pretension. Such choices must be made judiciously, so as not to disrupt or overwhelm the film.
“Four Samosas,” the second feature directed and written by the actor Ravi Kapoor (“Miss India America”), is presented in a square aspect ratio with rounded corners. A warm tint washes over each frame. When text appears on screen, it is bright yellow, the font Cooper Black. This film seems destined to be gratingly twee. Unfortunately, it never shakes that first impression.
Excessive hipsterness can be endearing, if done right, but “Four Samosas” woefully lacks the substance needed to buoy such overstylization. This self-proclaimed heist comedy is woefully lacking in both heists and comedy. Imagine if “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” was drained of its action and sharp humor, directed by Wes Anderson and set in the Little India shops of Artesia, Los Angeles.
The film is led by Vinny (Venk Potula, “Veep”) an aspiring rapper who works in a sari shop and longs to reunite with his ex, a goth eyebrow threader named Rina (Summer Bishil, “Towelhead”). When he finds out that Rina is engaged to his twerpish nemesis, Sanjay (Karan Soni, “Deadpool”), Vinny is determined to do something. He enlists three friends to rob the supermarket Rina’s father owns. Though Vinny tells his partners in crime that they’re stealing dirty diamonds to reappropriate unearned wealth, he’s actually just hoping to stall Rina’s engagement by making off with her dowry.
As far as reconciliation plans go, this is a bad one! Alas, Vinny has no one to dissuade him, because this movie is devoid of complex adults. Each character has just one or two defining traits, and they never deviate from or grow out of them. His mother sews nonstop. His father left their family for a religious life. His little cousin screams out original songs about pizza. Vinny’s crew for the heist includes Anjali (Sharmita Bhattacharya, “Panic”), the overachiever; Zak (newcomer Nirvana Patnaik), the aspiring Bollywood actor; and Paru (Sonal Shah, “Scrubs”), who likes food and is waiting for her green card.
Here’s what we know about Vinny: He wants to be a rapper. He is in love with Rina, but he drove her away by being relentlessly insecure. He and Rina broke up three years ago, and he has struggled to write songs since.
That’s a fine skeleton for a character-driven plot, but Kapoor never even fleshes out his main character. Though the film pretends to be self-aware about Vinny’s arrested development — the characters constantly remind him that Rina ended things three years ago — its justifications are shallow at best. The real antagonist in this film is Vinny himself, determinedly wrong-headed as he is, but instead the script pins all his problems on Rina’s rejection.
Let’s return to the “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” comparison: In Edgar Wright’s love letter to 8-bit fighting games and twentysomething solipsism, Scott (Michael Cera) also blames his slump on a crushing breakup. Unlikely adversaries give Scott a new raison d’être, but he truly levels up when he (quite literally) earns the power of self-respect. Eventually, Scott grows as a person; he apologizes for lies he told, owns his mistakes and learns to like himself.
Vinny, on the other hand, robs Rina’s father and deceives his friends with no narrative consequence. He learns no lessons, only apologizing to his crew after a pep talk from his cousin. (She assures him he is not a loser, which is pretty much the last thing this character needs to hear.) It’s clear Vinny has some abandonment issues related to his dad, but that relationship is hardly polished enough to yield major insights. What’s more, Rina, the woman he projected all of those issues onto, brushes off his childish behavior like it’s nothing.
The lack of stakes in this film come from its quirky style and shoddy writing. It’s perfectly possible for well-written film to be silly, but the levity in “Four Samosas” fizzles into nothing. The jokes are rarely funny — poor Sharmita Bhattacharya has to do the same lackluster bit twice in this 80-minute film — and occasionally cringe-worthy. Paru, the engineer, is ostensibly supposed to elicit laughter with her gruff, snack-obsessed bluster, but she’s just unpleasant.
Even the visual gags are gawky. In one sequence, the gang swaggers down a street in slow motion. When a full-speed passerby reveals they’ve just been walking extremely slowly, they snap out of it and start moving normally. This is the nonverbal equivalent of explaining a joke. It would have been perfectly delightful to reveal that they’ve been putting on the slow-mo for show; the characters don’t have to also then acknowledge it and act accordingly. This is just one of many instances in which this film fails to “yes, and” itself. “Four Samosas” is so intent on proving its own self-awareness that it rarely just commits to the bit.
The film’s Little India setting is delightful, and the many cultural references are its one standout feature. But you can only dress up a hollow script with so much crêpe Georgette. “Four Samosas” is likely to tickle you if you’re familiar with the intricacies of Indian culture, but that’s where its pleasures end. This is more an appetizer than a main course.
“Four Samosas” opens in US theaters and on demand via IFC Films.