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
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.