Shekhar Kapur’s What’s Love Got to Do With It? comes courtesy of Studio Canal and Working Title, two production companies who have created a cottage industry of star-laden British features that tend to err on the side of twee in their depiction of love in the modern age, soapy tales of wish fulfillment whose blandness easily translates across the pond. That’s not to say there haven’t been a few gems over the years — this critic is particularly inclined to go to bat for Love, Actually and About Time — but Shekhar Kapur’s What’s Love Got to Do With It? reflects the worst aspects of this particular production house, a romantic comedy that is neither romantic nor funny, and whose message of tolerance and familial acceptance feels as genuine as the hideous wig on co-star Emma Thompson’s head.
Lily James stars as Zoe, a 30-year-old award-winning documentary filmmaker who is first introduced when a character screams at her, “Well, if it isn’t the award-winning documentary filmmaker!” (a detail which should immediately clue the viewer in to the tenor of the tone-deaf script, courtesy of first-timer Jemima Khan). Zoe is visiting the home of her childhood friend and former neighbor, Kaz (Shazad Latif), and their respective families still live next door to one another. Zoe’s mom (Thompson) is one of those eccentrics who always seems slightly soused and belittles her daughter’s single status every chance she gets — but, you know, in a loving way. Kaz is equally alone, and has made the fateful decision to go through with an arranged marriage on the condition that his parents find an appropriate partner.
Professionally speaking, Zoe is instantly taken with the idea of her next film project: a documentary on the state of “assisted” marriages in the 21st century, in which she will follow Kaz on his romantic journey, as well as interview individuals whose partnerships resulted from traditional arrangement practices. Zoe is nothing if not an objective journalist, likening the act to “assisted suicide,” so you know this project is destined to be another notch on her awards belt. Let us describe, for one brief moment, Zoe’s so-called filmmaking prowess: she has one camera, no audio equipment whatsoever, and she often films like she’s having a full-blown seizure. Is this truly what fiction filmmaker Kapur — who is a long way from the likes of Bandit Queen and Elizabeth — and Khan think documentary filmmaking looks like? There is “guerilla,” and then there is whatever the hell Zoe is doing. But such a detail merely symbolizes the laziness on display in every facet of the final product, which believes that shoving two photogenic people into the same shot instantly creates unbridled sexual tension, when in truth, James and Latif share about as much believable chemistry as Mother Teresa and Voldemort.
Kaz and his family ultimately find a potential bride, an aspiring lawyer by the name of Maymouna (Sajal Ali), and Kaz proposes after only a few weeks of Skype sessions. This news comes as a shock to Zoe, probably because Kaz didn’t even let her film it for the documentary, although she only thinks to ask Kaz about the details of the proposal on a flight to India for the wedding itself, and without a camera — her film is going to suck. Upon meeting Maymouna, Kaz is shocked to learn that she likes to partake in the occasional recreational drug and has blonde highlights, his metaphorical monocle popping out at the mere sight. You see, Kaz is a judgmental asshole, and even when he calls out Zoe for being a basic bitch™ who has never thought to understand his place in the Western world as a Muslim, he does so in the most sanctimonious way possible. Zoe, meanwhile, likes to use fairytales to describe her various emotional and psychological states, such as likening herself to Red Riding Hood and the various random men she hooks-up with as the Big Bad Wolf. “Are a few nibbles so bad?” she asks, to which the film heartily replies by basically slut-shaming her into submission. Later, she starts dating a nice young man who has a good career and is loyal to her, and he overhears her telling her nieces a variation on “Beauty and the Beast” that basically amounts to her equating the relationship to Stockholm Syndrome.
Several weeks after the wedding, Zoe screens her documentary for friends and family, and it includes a “Gotcha!” moment involving Kaz’s estranged sister that seems to exist solely to humiliate him and his family. Once she realizes the error of her ways, Zoe says she will change the ending, and What’s Love Got to Do With It? proceeds to wrap things up exactly as you expect, with its two wholly unlikeable protagonists finally realizing what audience members knew all along: if they get together, it will free the dating apps from two of the most toxic individuals on the face of the planet. Love indeed has nothing to do with it, and it’s certainly nowhere to be found in this lazy, irritating slice of rom-com sludge.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 18.