At the same festival where Billy Eichner just attempted to revive the once-lucrative Apatow formula of sweet and salty with his queer comedy Bros, Shekhar Kapur, director of Elizabeth and Bandit Queen, is returning after an extended absence to try to resurrect the equally popular and equally dormant Working Title romcom with What’s Love Got to Do with It?, a fun, frothy and forgettable itch-scratcher. Both stick to a familiar playbook for subgenres that essentially come with a strict style guide attached but both also try to find a diverse retelling of stories that have been traditionally told with white, straight people at the centre.
Kapur’s isn’t quite as successful or specific as Eichner’s but it’s a slick reminder of the calming comfort that comes from the Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner blueprint – all handsome London locations and big, unfettered emotions – and it’s smooth and likable enough to encourage more of the same (rumours of a fourth Bridget Jones movie likely to be confirmed within weeks). Kapur might not have any experience within the comedy genre but his lavish, action-heavy period dramas have allowed him to master epic canvas storytelling and it lends the film a glossy grandness that’s been missing from the romcom ever since Netflix helped usher it back and flatten it down. It looks and feels big, gliding between continents and cultures, location upon location upon location. It might never reach emotions of the same size but its ease is hard to resist.
He’s working with a script from Jemima Khan, pulling elements from her own experience of marrying a a Muslim man and living in Pakistan, focusing on childhood friends living on the same street but coming from different backgrounds. Zoe (Lily James) has found a successful career as a documentary film-maker but the heaviness of her topics has made it hard to find funding. When her longtime friend Kaz (Shazad Latif) announces that he is starting the arranged marriage process, propelled by his own desire to do it rather than parental coercion, she sees his journey as inspiration for a new film, following him all the way down the aisle with her camera.
The process of production involves the pair debating romance and love and what it all means, sub-When Harry Met Sally back-and-forths that stay mostly surface-level, enjoyable enough to watch but rarely insightful. Khan’s script is one of competency rather than creativity: a sound structure, a propulsive pace and a learned awareness of genre conventions but dialogue that often feels a little first draft, a little placeholder-heavy, zingers not really zinging quite as they should. A running theme that sees Zoe bringing harsh reality to fairy tales doesn’t work in the way the film seems to think, although it’s refreshing to see James allowed to play something with slightly more depth than she often gets afforded. Too frequently, she gets stuck playing characters who make more sense as male fantasy than female reality (she, and we, deserved more from Cinderella, Baby Driver and Yesterday) but Zoe has more of an edge, wavering over the concept of marriage and using drunken sex as a pick-me-up, not conforming to a lot of the romcom tropes the Working Title stable helped to cement. At times, I wish the script had gone a bit further, especially with her attitude towards the concept of motherhood, but James is good at the spikier stuff, as she recently showed in the otherwise underwhelming Pam & Tommy. She has an easy, if never exactly electric, chemistry with a charming Latif.
The longtime Richard Curtis collaborator Emma Thompson also crops up as Zoe’s mother, fresh off arguably her greatest work to date in Good Luck to You Leo Grande (deserving every ounce of her Oscar buzz), but her presence is rather tiresome, over-egging comedy support in a way that feels outsized and uncomfortable, sinking rather than stealing scenes. It’s far more rewarding to watch Indian star Shabana Azmi as the other more layered matriarch, an astute actor avoiding cliche as a woman embracing both tradition and modernity and she sells us on the difficulty of that wrestle. The film doesn’t really have any profound statements to make on arranged marriages or marriage in general but it also avoids leaning into simplistic western judgment, the overall conclusion being that love can happen to anyone anywhere, no right or wrong route.
What’s love got to do with What’s Love Got to Do with It? For us, by the end, very little. But there’s plenty of like here instead.
What’s Love Got to Do with It? screened at the Toronto film festival and is released in the UK on 24 February.