Bride & Prejudice

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/20/05 22:30:05

"Or, how to use only the worst parts of three different genres."
1 stars (Sucks)

With apologies to the fans and critics who admire the works of filmmaker Curinder Chadha, I must admit that I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. Her “What’s Cooking?” and “Bend It Like Beckham” both came with intriguing premises, yet both derailed under weak storytelling that relied too heavily on cornball clichés and undercooked situations. (The overrated “Beckham” was especially irritating, due to its inexplicable success.) Now we get “Bride & Prejudice,” in which Chadha attempts to mix the Bollywood musical with Western romantic comedy, tossing in a Jane Austen update for good measure; the film is winning over the director’s usual slate of fans, but not me. “Bride” is not only Chadha’s worst misstep yet, but it’s an overlong, unwatchable mess in every regard.

What Chadha and her co-writer, Paul Mayeda Berges, fail to see is that the Bollywood musical is a genre so unto itself that it simply doesn’t fit anywhere else. The genre calls for grand melodrama and overplayed storytelling, all presented in a style to which the term “over the top” fails to do justice. Such a hyper-real presentation doesn’t gel with anything else in modern world cinema; it’s forgivable in Indian films because, well, I’m not sure why. I just know in certain movies, it works wonders.

But duplicating the Bollywood formula elsewhere is a recipe for disaster. I’m reminded of the 2002 flop “The Guru,” which combined Indian song-and-dance with Heather Graham, New York, and music from “Grease,” with understandably unwatchable results. “Bride” fares little better - the bland Jimi Mistry may not be around this time, but the bland Martin Henderson is. Not really what one would call trading up.

Yes, the jackass from “Torque” has been hired to play the leading man in a Westernized Bollywood musical, and there’s nothing we can do about it now.

Anyway. Something I noticed while watching “Bride” is how language affects music. Just as it’s strange to see a great opera reduced to middling, unpoetic translation when you read the English captions, listening to an English attempt at Indian music becomes, at times, laughable. One early tune finds a bride-to-be and her sisters singing about the ups and downs of matrimony, and while the music’s not too shabby, the lyrics are ungainly: “She’s going to be wed!/It’s not like she’s dead!” Wow. The movie’s packed with lyrics like this, and it’s clear that maybe another language could have hidden such sloppy writing, with the audience paying more attention to the cute melody than the insipid words.

Side note: consider for a moment our first introduction to the custom of breaking out into song, which is meant to reveal the Bollywood style to many viewers who are not accustomed to it. As the first song of the film starts up, one character turns to the American in the group and explains that it’s like a local version of “American Idol,” adding: “I hope you brought your earplugs.” Now, of course this is meant to show that this character is a bit cold, but what it actually does is tell the viewer, “Hey, you’re not used to this kind of music, and I doubt you’re not going to like it. Sorry.”

The American in question is William Darcy (Henderson), and those familiar with Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” or, at least, “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (consider me a non-fan of both, to put it politely), will recognize the plot to come. Lalitha (Indian megastar Aishwarya Rai) will enter a love/hate relationship with this dreary chap; she’ll find her way into the arms of smarmy Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies); love will be declared, arguments will be had, etc., etc. It’s quite faithful indeed to the source material, although that doesn’t really earn it any bonus points from me.

My complaints with the film are not in its storyline - although its efforts to cram in too many subplots were frequently annoying (especially the one about the Americanized Indian, a painfully unfunny caricature) - but with the presentation. Not just the aforementioned awkwardness with which Chadha brings in English Bollywood (although it’s just flat-out terrible, what with all the bad decisions on display here), but in everything else. Like the cast. I’m baffled why anybody would continue to hire Henderson, considering his complete failure to show any kind of screen presence; the guy’s a hump, plain and simple. The casting of Rai is more apparent - she is, after all, one of the world’s most popular movie stars - yet her broad, play-to-the-back-of-the-house Bollywood stylings don’t translate well here (although she does handle the English language quite well). Worse, there’s just no chemistry between the two leads, and the last thing you want in a romance is for every scene involving romance to fizzle upon arrival. Blame it all on Henderson if you must.

And really, how can a movie get away with scenes like the one in which Lalitha plays guitar, yet Rai’s clearly just poking around the strings like Val Kilmer in “Top Secret!”? That’s inexcusable.

Unless, that is, Chadha was going for laughs. I’ve read opinions that “Bride” was meant to be an affectionate parody of the Bollywood style, that the poor lip synching, the hokey music, and the overall sense of gigantic cheesiness were all done on purpose. I dunno. To me, such excuses seem like an apology by those who like the film yet know it’s bad. After seeing the heavy-handedness of Chadha’s last two pictures, I refuse to buy the intentionally-stupid angle, mainly because “Bride” offers up the exact same brand of shallow, hammy embarrassment that “Beckham” and “Cooking” did.

I also refuse to accept any film that passes itself off as a musical - good or bad - yet bothers to dump in Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me” on the soundtrack whenever it gets lazy and wants us to know that now we’re in the U.S. That’s just sloppy, people.

“Bride” trips all over itself as it tries to blend genres, and it falls face-first into the mud. This is a dreadful movie experiment. And yet, like Chadha’s previous failures, people seem to like it. I just don’t get it.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.