Movie Review ~ What’s Love Got to Do with It? (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: In London, an award-winning film-maker documents her best friend’s journey into an assisted marriage in line with his family’s Pakistani heritage. In the process, she challenges her own attitude towards relationships.
Stars: Lily James, Shazad Latif, Shabana Azmi, Emma Thompson, Sajal Aly, Oliver Chris, Asim Chaudhry, Jeff Mirza, Alice Orr-Ewing, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  In the pantheon of British romantic comedies, we constantly search for that next sparkling diamond in the rough.  That Four Weddings and a Funeral bolt of lightning or, dare we dream, a Notting Hill that will come and sweep us off our feet with a charm so irresistible we can’t wait to line up for a second (or third, or fourth) watch.  There’s something to these UK-set films that have a distinct sophistication that gives them a leg up on their American counterparts, absolving them of having to fall in line with the standard traps that have taken down many a Hollywood A-list headed bauble.

Despite its best efforts to attempt something different at the outset, What’s Love Got to Do with It? can’t sustain its case for joining the ranks of similar Brit fare.  Sure, it has a stacked cast working with experienced producers in this specific genre. However, its director and screenwriter seem more focused on dissecting custom than whether the leads come from an emotionally honest angle…or should be. That leaves us with (oh gosh, am I going to have to say it?) a movie with second-hand emotion instead of pursuing the sweet old-fashioned notion of true love.

Single-by-choice documentary filmmaker Zoe (Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) is pitching her new project to a pair of aloof producers who aren’t buying her more artistic (read: limited appeal) idea.  In desperation, she makes a last-ditch suggestion: follow her childhood friend/neighbor Kaz (Shazad Latif, The Commuter) as he marries a woman of his parent’s choosing.  British-born but with parents that immigrated from Pakistan, he won’t admit it, but Kaz feels pressure to stick with long-held traditions in his culture, especially after his sister was shunned from the family after marrying outside of her faith.  With approval to make “Love, Contractually,” Zoe secures the financing for her project…now she has to get Kaz to agree to participate.

We wouldn’t have much of a movie if Jemima Khan’s script didn’t have Kaz go along with Zoe’s plan, would we?  Before long, Zoe is omnipresent in the lives of Kaz and his parents (Shabana Azmi and Jeff Mirza, Eternals) as they take steps with a matchmaker Asim Chaudhry (Wonder Woman 1984), to find a perfect bride for Kaz.  Meeting Maymouna (Sajal Aly) over an awkward Zoom call feels like it will be another dead end, but the two find a spark.  That’s also when Zoe first realizes that she may feel more for her friend than she has admitted and begins to question not just her motives for wanting to make the film but the entire validity of assisted marriage in the first place.

The opening act of What’s Love Got to Do with It? holds some promise by reminding us of the British (and British-inspired) explosion of rainy-day romances in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.  Director Shekhar Kapur and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin give the film a welcoming lived-in look, down to the sharp contrast between the traditional home of Kaz’s parents and the bohemian effervescence of Zoe’s mother Cath (Emma Thompson, Cruella, in a carefully curated performance from the Meryl Streep School of Quirk) who lives right beside them.  You get the impression that the movie will follow the expected beats, but it’s a song you’re pleased to hear. (The one oddity no one explains is how poor a videographer Zoe is — she must have a crack editor before the footage we see filmed through her lens looks like a handheld jumbly mess but the finished product looks like a mix of When Harry Met Sally interviews cut together expertly with her footage.)

Then Khan (or Kapur, I can’t tell which) pumps the brakes around midway through, and the momentum that had been gaining nicely groaningly grinds to a halt.  We’re left with a long stretch of mundane dialogue and scenes that feel more directed at a generational divide in cultures than pushing forward the narrative we’d been starting to lean into.  Admittedly, it begins to bounce back as it nears the end of the evening, but the damage has been done.  A weakness has been exposed that it can’t fully recover from, no matter how convincingly invested James is, no matter how much Thompson works to remind us how easily she can turn an iffy line into a spiffy one, and no matter how much everyone wants us to believe this was the plan all along.

I’m leaving out more fatal flaws with the film’s plot that are just skipped over in screenplay to avoid conflict that would further derail the overall arc.  That feels like a bit of a cheat to me on Khan’s part but no matter.  What’s Love Got to Do with It? already sports a title that makes you think of something else entirely, and I wouldn’t doubt that for a significant amount of its running time, you’ll find your mind drifting to better romantic comedies this one can’t quite rise to the same level of.  Ideal for a rental if you’re a fan of anyone involved or are interested in a more diverse twist to the genre but be warned that this isn’t precisely the airy film it is being marketed as.

Movie Review ~ Living

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1950s London, a humorless civil servant decides to take time off work to experience life after receiving a grim diagnosis.
Stars: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Tom Burke, Adrian Rawlins, Oliver Chris, Hubert Burton, Zoe Boyle, Barney Fishwick
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 102 minutes|
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review: It’s the little ones that will surprise you. I’d heard through the critical grapevine that Living, an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 Japanese film Ikiru, was quite exceptional and that its star Bill Nighy could be a potential dark horse in the Best Actor race. Arriving so late in the discussion, it can be difficult for a smaller, quieter film like Living to turn many heads or upend enough ballots to achieve the type of success its supporters predict. And yet… it’s so spectacularly good that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nighy ride a wave of raves to a slot in the Oscar nominations when they are announced next week. 

Adapted from the Kurosawa original by Kazuo Ishiguro (author of The Remains of the Day & Never Let Me Go, both of which were turned into haunting films), the time shifts to London shortly after World War II when professional men lined up for work in bowler hats and stiff collars. These men knew the devastation of war, scarred by years of struggle, and now they largely kept to themselves and their families, rarely engaging outside of their inner circle. 

Such is the life for widower Williams (Nighy, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu), the head of the London Public Works Department overseeing a small staff of gentlemen and one female (Aimee Lou Wood, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain) with ambitions outside of a state job. He’s fallen into a familiar rut of spending little to maintain the bottom line. His son and daughter-in-law have little time for him, so it’s a routine of few surprises he’s following when his doctor gives him a fixed amount of time to live. Initially drawn to keeping his pity party short, he instead takes a different approach to the finality of his time by changing things up in unexpected ways.

Unlike many Oscar hopefuls this year, Living doesn’t hinge on one strong performance. Nighy’s outstanding work is not the only part of Living that makes it a worthwhile watch. Director Oliver Hermanus has surrounded the actor with an equally fine supporting cast and wrapped them up in a handsome production design that gracefully recreates the UK post-WWII. To the credit of all, especially Ishiguro, the film has several surprising detours that keep Living from reaching its destination the way you’d expect it to.

It all comes back to Nighy, though, and while the actor is a dependable presence in every project he turns up in, this falls on a different level of achievement. The layers Nighy has to put on at the film’s beginning, only to pull back slowly and painfully, are a wonder to behold. If you can make it through the actor singing a plaintive Scottish song (twice!) without choking back tears, you are made of stronger stuff than I am. Hermanus allows Nighy’s character, who never takes up too much space, to have center stage, and it’s as moving a movie moment as you’re likely to experience anywhere. 

I don’t want you to walk away from this review thinking Living is a sad slog, though, because that would betray the point of the Kurosawa original and what Ishiguro/Hermanus are doing with this remake. There’s a focus on pointing out what a stodgy routine can do to a soul and how making a slight shift can improve your view and the way others see you. We’re put on this earth to celebrate the good, love fiercely, and live our best life while we are able before it’s too late. I can’t imagine any other actor being able to convey this story as well as Nighy has, and his performance in Living should be rewarded in turn.