“We all need other people. There’s no weakness in that.”
Recently, my boyfriend decided that he was going to introduce me to 90 Day Fiancé, the reality show in which two people from different countries unite to presumably get married and spend the rest of their lives together. I was reluctant to watch, but out of love for him, I gave in. To my surprise, the show is refreshingly low on the kind of drama that makes me stay away from reality television in general and the cultural conflicts that arise between the couples have admittedly been interesting, even with the kind of manufacturing that comes with the reality TV territory. But the show is a lesson in what happens when love is pitted against compatibility among two people from different backgrounds. Little did I know, but the show was the perfect background for What’s Love Got to Do With It?, the new film from director Shekhar Kapur, who in a way, takes the concept of 90 Day Fiancé and expands on it by exploring it in a thought-provoking manner that works…for most of the time.
British documentary filmmaker Zoe (Lily James) is stuck in a personal and professional rut. Her mother Cath (Emma Thompson) keeps trying to set her up with one unsuitable guy after another, while the new project she’s trying to pitch is going nowhere. The one comfort in her life is best friend Kazim (Shazad Latif), who drops a bombshell when he tells her that his parents have arranged a marriage for him with a woman from India (Sajal Ali). On a whim, Zoe decides to document the entire process of Kazim’s wedding, from the couple’s first meeting to the big day itself. In the process, she comes face to face with unexpected insights into her own life.
As much as What’s Love Got to Do With It? tries to be everything a romantic comedy wants to be and more, it cannot help but fail in quite a few areas. The film must sense its got a lot of ground to cover since it jumps right into things, barely even giving us time to be properly introduced to the main characters. The hurried quality never lets up, with most of the movie coming off as choppy and uneven. A lot of this has to do with elements that almost have no business being in the film at all, including and especially Zoe’s b-plot of wanting to become a mother very soon. With so much to say, however, the plot mechanics almost instantly take a backseat to the movie’s ideology, which is interesting and does manage to ask some very probing questions. But the plot’s shakiness cannot be ignored and shows itself so much, it’s almost a wonder that a releasable movie came out at all. The most glaring plot weakness is the actual romance between the two central characters, which could have used some serious fleshing out since it feels as if these two people are only falling in love solely because the script is telling them they have to.
If it sounds like I’m saying that What’s Love Got to Do with It? isn’t worth an audience’s time, forgive me. The fact of the matter is that it is very much worth viewing. Kapur’s film offers up plenty of parallels between Zoe and Kazim’s individual love lives that speak to their respective cultures, namely their parents trying to choose partners for them based on who they think they are. Elsewhere, the somewhat fluid definition of an arranged marriage is explored, specifically the difference between an “arranged” marriage and an “assisted” one. The infamous Charles and Diana quote about love is even given a reference in one of the movie’s telling moments and the act of putting yourself out there to find a spark that isn’t there emerges as a key theme. At the end of the day, this is a story about tradition in the modern world and how members of different cultures can reconcile themselves with each other. Where does one’s loyalty lie? In the culture they proudly claim to be a part of, or in the actual person they are that is not wholly defined by said culture. The movie doesn’t succeed at answering every question it asks, but it always gives its audiences plenty to ponder.
James has never been more endearing than she is here. She is able to pinpoint Zoe’s vulnerabilities and present them in a way that’s right for the character. The woman she’s playing is a tricky one and at times can come across as closed off or aloof, but James gives her enough humanity that allows us to accept her various flaws. Latif also does solid work as the film’s male lead, oozing the kind of charisma that movies like these hinge on. In a way, it’s his role that’s the more challenging as he’s tasked with showing the conflict of having to balance tradition and modernity in such a huge way. The actor pulls this off by honestly presenting his character’s struggle with the choice he feels he must make and what he actually wants from his life. As for the rest of the cast, all help drive the movie’s points home, save for Thompson, who is less miscast here and more a victim of a character than shouldn’t exist beyond two scenes.
To its own detriment, What’s Love Got to Do With It? doesn’t know when to stop. Besides the obligatory romance everyone is expecting to happen, there’s a subplot introduced involving Kazim’s sister who was excommunicated from the family for marrying a white British man, and the social difference between being “British-born” and simply “British.” None of these topics are given the full weight they deserve in a film whose aims are all over the place. But the movie does get a lot right in the comments it does take the time to make and even offers up lovely sequences to boot. Kazim’s wedding is a beautiful affair that’s shot exquisitely and made even more poignant thanks to all the mixed emotions running rampant during it, especially between the couple themselves. Flaws aside, What’s Love Got to Do with It? is a success in the way it doesn’t choose progress over tradition, but in how it shows that in 2023, there’s room for both.