Bride & Prejudice

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/10/05 23:18:25

"Can one gorgeous actress make the unendurable actually watchable?"
3 stars (Just Average)

Gurinder Chadha, the Indian-born director whose previous films have included “What’s Cooking?” and the international hit “Bend It Like Beckham,” directs her movies in much the same way that people throw parties. They are riotous affairs filled with good food, attractive people and a bustling atmosphere that ensures that there is always something going on and that every one of her invited guests is given a spotlight moment where they become the center of everyone’s attention. This is not the worst way to approach a film but at times, her need to keep things hopping so that there isn’t a lull in the festivities can grow exhausting; just at the moment when you want to go outside to get some fresh air and a bit of peace and quiet, she button-holes you in the hallway and introduces you to your ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend because she is sure that the two of you would enjoy discussing the works of Takashi Miike for the next half-hour. Even the otherwise enjoyable “Beckham” had so many subplots stuffed into it that what should have been a short, sweet story took over two hours to wind things up.

Her latest film, “Bride and Prejudice,” is a typically overstuffed affair that is so eager to please that you almost begin to feel bad about pointing out its shortcomings, even though they are far too apparent to simply overlook, starting with the basic premise itself. The film takes its basic premise, as you can probably guess, from Jane Austen’s immortal “Pride and Prejudice” and has given it a modern-day updating by, among other things, re-imagining the proceedings as a cultural clash between stick-in-the-mud Americans and Brits and the boisterous, salt-of-the-Earth Indians. If that weren’t enough, she has also decided to transform the story into a full-on musical. In Bollywood (the nickname given to the enormous Indian film industry), many films, no matter what the subject, break into elaborate song-and-dance numbers. (I once even saw this approach being used in a film that was a fairly spot-on knock-off of “Silence of the Lambs.”) As a result, in the middle of the otherwise familiar storyline (of which I can only hope that no further elaboration on my part is required), characters suddenly burst out into songs with titles like “No Life Without Wife.” (One of my favorite moments comes just after a major production number set in a public market has concluded and we hear a character remark “I don’t know how any business gets done here.”)

Although my antipathy towards musicals is fairly well pronounced, I don’t necessarily object in principle to the Bollywood aesthetic because they, for the most part, don’t make apologies for being musicals–they just plow ahead with gusto without trying to come up with a tortured reason for why the characters are suddenly singing. In fact, one of the most hugely entertaining films that I have seen in the last few years was a 2002 release entitled “Lagaan,” which was a four-hour long musical in which a rag-tag bunch of Indians struggled to form a cricket team to beat their British oppressors and save their village from excessive taxation. (If you doubt that such a premise could be anything but unendurable, get a hold of the DVD and prove yourself wrong–you’ll be glad you did.) However, they tend to work better when they provide a distinct contrast with the rest of the proceedings, as they did in “Lagaan.” However, sticking in a bunch of musical numbers to lighten up a story that is already pretty feather-brained to begin with, is just asking for trouble; the whimsy quickly grows unendurable and whatever dramatic momentum that the plot might still contain erodes with the inclusion of every additional song.

There are other problems with the film as well. Never a director with a particularly light or subtle touch, Chadha really lays things on thick here. The bad guys are all one-dimensional types who are so nakedly evil (especially the bounder attempting to seduce an innocent lass and the American mother–an inexplicable cameo from Marsha Mason–trying to keep her son away from one of those awful Indian types) that they lack only handlebar mustaches to twirl while saying “Mu-ha-ha!”. Another character, an Indian desperately attempting to assimilate into American culture, is depicted so cartoonishly that he makes Ali G look like a model of restraint by comparison. The biggest flaw is that Martin Henderson, who portrays Will Darcy, the stiff-upper-lip who eventually wins the heart of our heroine, turns in one of the most spectacularly awful and unappealing performances in recent memory–we’re talking Cary-Elwes-in-“Saw” bad–and every time he comes on screen, you’ll find yourself desperately counting the minutes until he leaves. Not exactly the kind of response that you want from one-half of the couple whose relationship is the central focus of the story.

There is one truly appealing element of “Bride and Prejudice”–so appealing in fact that it almost makes the other flaws irrelevant–and that is the presence of Aishwarya Rai in the central role of Lalita, the Elizabeth equivalent. There has been much debate among film critics, perhaps a tacit admission that there is nothing else in the film worth discussing, about whether or not she is indeed the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Although I don’t know if I would go that far (my votes would go towards Milla Jovovich, Nastassja Kinski, Uma Thurman, Angelina Jolie, Audrey Tautou, Kate Winslet, Emmanuelle Beart, Fergie from the Black-Eyed Peas, Ziyi Zhang, Monica Bellucci and anyone who I happen to be dating when I get asked that question), she is gorgeous enough that if someone were to make that claim, I would not argue the point.

What makes her more than just another incredibly pretty face is the fact that she, like Audrey Hepburn and Julia Roberts showed in “Roman Holiday” and “Pretty Woman,” has the kind of personality and on-screen charisma that can cause even the most cynical of viewers to fall helplessly under her spell. She is so charming and delightful that when she is on screen, you hardly notice how incredibly daft the proceedings surrounding her are. Without her presence, “Bride and Prejudice” would be one of the most unendurable films ever made; with her, it is almost worth watching.

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