THE STORY – Zoe is a documentary filmmaker who uses a dating app that only delivers an endless stream of Mr. Wrongs. For Zoe’s childhood friend and neighbor, Kaz, the answer is to follow his parents’ example and opt for an arranged marriage to a bright and beautiful bride from Pakistan. As Zoe films his hopeful journey to marry a stranger, she begins to wonder if she might have something to learn from a profoundly different approach to finding love.
THE CAST – Lily James, Shazad Latif, Emma Thompson, Sabana Azmi, Oliver Chris & Sajal Ali
THE TEAM – Shekhar Kapur (Director) & Jemima Khan (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 109 Minutes
From the first few minutes of Shekhar Kapur’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” it’s clear where the story is headed. Screenwriter Jemima Khan attempts to add a unique twist to a relatively familiar romantic comedy story by showcasing Muslim culture in the United Kingdom. Yet, Khan’s script lacks the originality that could’ve given it the edge over other films in the genre. The movie marks the feature directorial debut of Kapur and contains a plethora of hits and misses along the way, leading to a fairly conventional yet still somehow amusing rom-com. It’s like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” mixed with “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” with more diverse characters and contemporary updates, but nothing all that memorable. And, no, we do not hear the hit Tina Turner song “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” at all during the film, although the song may get stuck in your head whenever you see the title.
Zoe (Lily James) and Kaz (Shazad Latif) have been best friends and neighbors in London since they were children; now in their 30s, they’re both single and have vastly different approaches to finding love. Zoe, a documentary filmmaker, spends her time on dating apps with no real luck, whereas Kaz has decided to follow his Pakistani immigrant parents’ example and go for an “assisted” marriage (similar to an arranged marriage, although it is performed through a matchmaking service). When her producers/financiers tell her to find a more character-driven project, Zoe decides to film Kaz and his journey – titling the film “Love Contractually” – as he prepares to marry a stranger, while her views on love begin to change. This stranger is a 22-year-old woman living in Pakistan who aspires to be a human rights lawyer, and this match was essentially chosen by Kaz’s parents. Zoe’s mother (Emma Thompson) just wants her daughter to find “the one” and ends up interfering in her daughter’s love life as much as Kaz’s parents do in his.
“What’s Love Got To Do With It?” features traditional Muslim Pakistani weddings and depicts Muslim culture in the United Kingdom – and Pakistan – through various generations. Zoe interviews various couples and individuals who often speak openly about their arranged or assisted marriages. The film contains lots of commentary on Muslim-related issues, especially regarding what it’s like as a British-Pakistani Muslim. However, it’s never nearly as nuanced as it intends. Aside from a few chuckles, the script is also hardly funny; for a romantic comedy, it leans far more heavily on the romantic side than on the comedic one. Especially later in the film, it seems to be more of a romantic drama than a comedy, considering what transpires in the characters’ lives. It’s also unclear why Zoe has no crew, as she is presumably the only one filming – and editing – the documentary.
To the film’s credit, it wastes no time in showing the premise; in fact, it almost moves so rapidly at the beginning that the much slower pace of the (majority of) the rest of the film seems out of touch. While the concept is intriguing, the story ends up being stretched a bit too far, which isn’t helped by the snail-like pacing in the third act. Khan’s script isn’t all that creative, despite glimpses into what could’ve been revelatory, although the writer is evidently aware of the conventions of the rom-com genre. However, movies of the genre are typically awkward and replete with cringe-inducing moments, which are few and far between in “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”
The film’s dialogue is rarely witty, sharp, or memorable and includes such cliched – and oft-repeated lines – as “Can we talk?” makes the screenplay almost too sickly sweet for its own good, with hackneyed lines such as “we don’t choose who we fall in love with.” The message is as clear as day, and we don’t need character spelling it out for us. Yet, by the movie’s end, it’s hard not to become at least somewhat invested in the characters and story, which also deals with loneliness and deciding what’s right for each individual. Similarly, the film explores the myriad of ways that relationships can exist and be sustained and how vastly different cultures can learn from one another, even though its explorations of these issues are merely surface-level. There’s some sporadic narration courtesy of Zoe, who tells her own version of noted fairy tales – including “Cinderella,” the live-action adaption James starred in – to her nieces. These stories are told over montages of Zoe’s life, particularly her dating life. A few B plots also don’t come to fruition, notably some relationship problems involving Zoe’s sister and brother-in-law.
James, who dazzled in last year’s limited series “Pam & Tommy,” is a reliably charming and solid screen presence, even if the role doesn’t require her to stretch her limits as an actor. She certainly elevates the material, especially when given some strange dialogue that often seems out of character. Thanks to her likeability, we can care at least a little about Zoe and her experiences. It’s also thanks to the strong chemistry between James and Latif that it’s easy to sense the deep emotional connection between their characters, which is often shown via subtle interactions. It certainly helps that the two are supposedly long-time friends in real life, as there’s an ease in their conversations. Oscar-winner Thompson clearly had a blast with this role of the wacky, doting mother who meddles way too much in her grown daughter’s life. She provides her daughter with plenty of motherly wisdom, which is well-intentioned, although she seems out of place in the film and actually underused.
Ultimately, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” is a feel-good comfort movie whose emotional heft sneaks up on you, even though the ending is extraordinarily predictable. It can also be considered a crowd-pleasing movie with a fairytale-like, happily-ever-after ending that just might put a smile on your face. The journey’s not perfect, yet the final scene will likely bring a smile to your face. It’s a messy rom-com with much more emphasis on romance than comedy, which is in short supply.