Careers take winding paths: you can start your career doing the most terrible nonsense and still end up a beloved, iconic, hugely successful star. Steve McQueen was in The Blob, George Clooney was in a Killer Tomatoes sequel, and so on. And now (at the time of writing, anyway) Michelle Yeoh is in with at least a chance of becoming the-first-woman-to-identify-as-Asian to win an Oscar (it turns out Merle Oberon has a lot to answer for) despite starting out in films with unpromising titles like Owl vs Bombo and Tai Chi Master.
Of course, even after you arrive you can still end up in a bad film, and in Yeoh's case the one leaping irresistibly to my mind, at least, is Last Christmas, an egregious rom-com from 2019. This was such a bad film that it seems to have burned itself into my memory, and I was duly alarmed when elements of another new movie started ringing bells of reminiscence. I speak of Shekhar Kapur's What's Love Got To Do With It?, which has a virtually identical poster (female star is smiling knowingly to herself, male star is apparently overcome with joy merely by being in her presence), all the Working Title/Brit rom-com trappings, and Emma Thompson coming in for a broad comedy turn as a slightly embarrassing mum.
Nevertheless, Kapur is a director with some impressive films on his (relatively short) CV – most notably the two Elizabeths starring Cate Blanchett – and the co-spousal unit and myself fancied watching something fairly undemanding and not gory, so along we trotted to see it.
Lily James plays Zoe, whom we are repeatedly told is an Award Winning Documentary Film-Maker. She has grown up next door to Kazim and his family, who are Muslims of Pakistani origin. Kazim is played by Shazad Latif, whom you may recall as Clem Discovery in Toast of London and Voq the Klingon in Star Trek: Fandango. We are also repeatedly told that Kazim is A Successful Doctor. She has been through a string of unhappy romantic entanglements; he is single but thinking about settling down. The final destination may not be printed on the ticket, but it doesn't look that difficult to figure out.
Or does it? In keeping with the traditions of his culture, Kazim decides to go for what is now known as an assisted marriage ('arranged' now having some slightly suspect overtones) with the help of his parents and friends. As it happens, Zoe is looking for a new, upbeat topic for her latest project (there are a couple of caricature media producer characters obsessed with image and branding rather than substance), and settles on making a film about Kazim's search for a wife and eventual marriage.
After a false start with a matrimonial provision agency run by Asim Chaudhry (who is good for a few laughs, as you might expect), Kazim is put in touch with a woman in Lahore named Maymouna (Sajal Aly) who seems to tick all the right boxes. And so off they all fly to Pakistan for the wedding, even taking Zoe's mum along for those moments when all you really want is a broad comedy bit. Zoe has had some fairly grim experiences on the western-style dating scene, also with the ensuing marriages, but even so she can't help feeling that she doesn't entirely want Kazim and Maymouna to tie the knot Pakistani-style...
Working Title is a company that has made a fairly varied set of films over the last thirty-odd years – they've done westerns, full-on horror films and even a Robin Hood film – but they are most closely associated with a particular flavour of British rom-com; the carefully-crafted confection of photogenic London views, appealing casts, slightly cheeky but still accessible scripts, and an only-in-passing acquaintance with real life. Four Weddings and a Funeral is the type specimen, but there are dozens more on the list – such is the appeal of the brand that there are films that look exactly like a Working Title rom-com made by other people entirely (e.g. Man Up). And to begin with What's Love Got To Do With It? looks like it's ticking all the boxes.
In the end, though, this turns into something rather different – there are still regular bits of pure broad comedy inserted throughout the script, but it's a much more thoughtful and occasionally angsty film than you might expect, certainly a comedy-drama more than a rom-com. The script is by Jemima Khan, who left the UK to live in Pakistan herself, and unsurprisingly it is initially very careful to be even-handed about the relative merits of the western and traditional methods of finding a romantic partner – most assisted marriages appear to be successful, more than the western variety, and Zoe is depicted as having a fairly wretched time on the London dating circuit.
There's some good thoughtful stuff going on here, although the film occasionally seems to be being a bit performative in its attempts to encapsulate the entirety of the British Islamic experience. The problem is that all of this isn't really taking the film where the demands of the rom-com genre require it to go. You can almost feel the conventions of the form grappling around the story and forcibly wrenching it into a different shape as the end draws closer.
This sort of thing is always a shame, not least because it's practically the definition of what constitutes melodrama; although to be fair to What's Love Got To Do With It?, it seldom feels particularly melodramatic. Nor does it really feel like knockabout romantic fun for much of its length; I did lean over to the co-spousal unit at one point and whisper 'This is a bit bleak, isn't it?' Now, let's be clear – you have to knock the characters down in order to have any sort of uplifting ending, but it has to be an ending that works and convinces. The one here just seems really contrived and a bit mawkish, with characters abandoning the beliefs and principles they have been vocal about throughout as they are washed away on a wave of sentiment. Whatever the merits of the rest of the film are, the ending simply isn't very good.
Of course, part of the problem is that any rom-com-about-Pakistani-culture is necessarily going to draw comparisons with Kumail Nanjiani's The Big Sick, which is really, really good, and also doesn't feature the main white character managing to persuade all their Asian friends that their own traditions are inferior to the western way of doing things. There's some interesting stuff in What's Love Got To Do With It?, and the film is generally well-made and well-acted, but this is a rom-com which is basically crippled by the fact it has to be a rom-com. Either no-one noticed this while the film was in development, or they all thought it didn't matter. Either way, it was a bad call.