Early on in “What’s Love Got to Do With It?,” enterprising London-based filmmaker Zoe (Lily James) pitches a proposed documentary about Muslim arranged marriages to a pair of white male commissioners. They’re bored and disengaged until they realize how the topic can be dressed up in the tropes and lingo of Western romantic comedy to appeal to a general British audience: One suggests interview inserts in the style of “When Harry Met Sally,” the other name-drops “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” as a reference point. When Zoe suggests titling the doc “Love Contractually,” the deal is done.
Sharper than anything else in Shekhar Kapur’s pleasant, easygoing comedy, the scene neatly satirizes how nuanced cross-cultural material can be blandly packaged and whitewashed for the mainstream — a point that would land harder if “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” didn’t proceed to do much the same thing. At a push, you could credit the film — a first feature screenwriting credit for producer and former journalist Jemima Khan — with some meta self-awareness as it tackles a thorny, divisive cultural institution in the sweetest, sunniest terms possible, down to its own recurring “When Harry Met Sally”-style inserts. But to what end, exactly? As strenuously as the film professes to give arranged marriages a fair shake, its whole cornball narrative is rigged against the very concept: “Love Contractually” may be the pitch, but “Love Actually” is the preferred outcome.
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Not that Zoe herself is entering proceedings with an entirely open mind. The spur for her documentary is the unexpected announcement from her childhood neighbor and lifelong best friend Kazim (Shazad Latif) that he’s about to enter an arranged marriage, at the behest of his staunchly traditional Pakistani immigrant parents. It is, in many respects, a surprise. A handsome, urbane and eminently dateable doctor, Kazim doesn’t look like someone who’d have any trouble finding a partner on his own terms; as a football-playing, fully assimilated Briton who smokes and drinks behind his parents’ back, he doesn’t seem especially wedded to their cultural values either.
To an extent, these are the factors on Zoe’s mind when she asks Kazim, somewhat critically, why he plans to marry a stranger. But more pressingly, we need only one scene of them cutely bantering to deduce that they’re crazy about each other, have been for years, and have never admitted it out loud — even as they’ve remained mutually unlucky in love well into their thirties. Why not? Well, there wouldn’t be a story to tell if they had. And so “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” proceeds to pit two sets of traditions — those of Muslim marriage, and those of the romantic comedy playbook — against each other as Kazim journeys to Lahore to meet and marry his approved bride, with Zoe and her camera fretfully in tow.
But it’s neither a fair fight, nor an especially tense one. Kazim’s betrothed Maymouna (Sajal Ali, in the film’s canniest performance) is young, polite and winsomely beautiful, but it takes a single Skype call to establish that they have no chemistry or common ground, in even more ways than they initially perceive. We don’t want them to end up together any more than we want Zoe to settle for James (a sweetly hangdog Oliver Chris), the nice but terminally milquetoast veterinarian that her meddling mother Cath (Emma Thompson) keeps pushing on her. James and Latif, both wholesomely appealing, don’t exactly burn up the screen either, but they fit together, in the rom-com language that the film mostly speaks.
Khan — once famously married to Pakistani cricketer and eventual prime minister Imran Khan — infuses proceedings with perceptive, plainly heartfelt knowledge of the strains and compromises that come with blending British and Pakistani culture, as Kazim quite reasonably admonishes Zoe for judging his family’s traditions according to her own life experience, oblivious to the ways he’s always been treated as other in his own home country. (Later, Zoe’s documentary is stalled when producers object to the “white lens” she brings to proceedings; again, whether Khan is calling herself out on this front is open to question.) Thompson’s high-key comic turn as Cath, meanwhile, represents the most cringe-worthy ways in which Brits can condescend to their immigrant neighbors whilst professing to embrace them: “Wasn’t that wonderfully exotic — I feel like a concubine,” she gushes after attending a Muslim wedding celebration.
Direct-to-camera testimonies from Kazim’s parents, grandmother and traditionally married younger brother — whose family, by luck or by kismet, paired him with a fellow Harry Potter nerd — offer a rosier view of arranged (or “assisted,” as we’re told is the preferred term) marriage, and it’s via such secondary characters that “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” feigns even-handedness on the subject. But defenders of the tradition may reasonably query why the film then pivots on such a plainly ill-fated arrangement, or why its most prominent — and most moving — subplot centers on the family’s disownment of Kazim’s sister Jamila (Mariam Haque) for marrying outside her faith. Such complex matters are rather swiftly resolved in a finale heavy on hugging and learning and swift changes of heart: Khan writes resolution more easily than she does conflict.
Directing his first narrative feature since 2007’s misbegotten “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” Kapur is most at home with the glowingly lit pomp and pageantry of the Lahore-set wedding sequences; his muscular maximalism is a less natural fit, however, for the bright, springy rhythms of a romantic comedy. That means this essentially lightweight exercise lumbers more than it should, even as whole setpieces and script passages convincingly mimic the moves of Working Title genre forebears like “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” (Even Latif’s lushly floppy hairdo seems styled to recall vintage Hugh Grant.) “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” is most interesting when it veers farthest from that template, and indeed from its white British heroine’s perspective — one that cues a Hollywood happy ending as forcibly arranged as any marriage could be.
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