What's Love Got to Do with It?
Lily James and Shazad Latif make charming leads in this by-the-numbers British rom-com about a filmmaker documenting her childhood best friend's assisted marriage.
January 26, 2023
What's charm got to do with it? In What's Love Got to Do with It?, plenty. A rom-com with absolutely nothing to do with Tina Turner, the song that instantly springs to mind or the 1993 biopic about the singer's life, this British affair from the producers of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, the Bridget Jones films and Love Actually — and the more-recent Yesterday and Cyrano, too — thrives on the charisma of its leads. It has to. Lily James (Pam & Tommy) and Shazad Latif (Profile) are nicely cast, but they're also all-so-crucially required to help patch over the movie's flagrant formula. Indeed, as penned by journalist-turned-producer-turned-screenwriting first-timer Jemima Khan, and helmed by Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, What's Love Got to Do with It? interrogates its own premise in its template-like nature. Is it better to stick to a tried-and-tested route or let surprises reign? In the way it's made and the tale it tells, at least, this flick repeatedly advocates for the former.
For documentarian Zoe (James) and oncologist Kazim (Latif), childhood pals, neighbours and each other's first kiss, What's Love Got to Do with It?'s big battle isn't about romantic comedies, of course. And, it certainly isn't about whether the latest entry in the genre should paint by numbers or dare to diverge from the trusty path. But the same conflict underscores Zoe and Kaz's differing approaches to love and marriage, as Zoe is shocked to discover at Kaz's brother Farooq's (Mim Shaikh, Doctors) wedding. That's where the man she's known her whole life announces he's getting hitched, even though he hasn't met someone. Happy to skip the chaos of dating, not fussed with casual hookups, and buoyed by his parents Aisha (Shabana Azmi, Halo) and Zahid's (Jeff Mirza, Eternals) success with arranged nuptials, he's putting his trust in assisted marriage to find someone to share his life with.
What's Zoe got to do with Kaz's decision, other than being a friend by his side? There's the glaring answer and then there's how Khan's script keeps her central pair in each other's orbit other than just as mates. As Zoe gets knocked back for funding for her next project, she doesn't blink before suggesting examining assisted marriages in Britain instead. (My Big Fat Arranged Marriage is her producers' dream title.) Kaz is understandably reluctant, but soon Zoe's camera is capturing everything, including the parade of events that her mother Cath (Emma Thompson, Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical) chats, drinks and dances her way through. Making a doco out of Kaz's quest to tie the knot can't help Zoe avoid her mum's stereotypical pestering about her own romantic prospects, however, complete with setting her up with family vet James (Oliver Chris, Emma).
Due to rom-com logic, convention and expectation, there's a dose of My Best Friend's Wedding to What's Love Got to Do with It?, although Zoe doesn't ever try to sabotage Kaz's big day. There's also more than a dash of When Harry Met Sally… to Kapur's first feature in over a decade and a half (other than a segment of New York, I Love You) as Zoe and Kaz constantly discuss their varying ideas about relationships. And, to zero astonishment as well, there's pure and simple obviousness at work. Almost any rom-com focused on these two characters, enlisting these two actors, and benefiting from James and Latif's easy chemistry — and their innate likeability in both parts, especially Toast of London and Toast of Tinseltown's Latif — is going to do exactly what the audience not only wants, but what What's Love Got to Do with It?'s genre has primed them for.
Accordingly, the real questions at the heart of What's Love Got to Do with It? aren't whether Kaz's assisted-marriage plan will succeed, or if this is a sensible way to meet one's other half in these always-swiping times. A culture clash comes with the setup, with Kaz's choice hailing from his Pakistani heritage, but diving into what that tradition means for better and for worse is a mere subplot. Rather, the film asks the most straightforward query it or any romantic comedy can or ever does. The specifics vary from flick to flick, but it's the same predicament. Here, it plays out like this: how will employing Muslim matchmaker Mo (Asim Chaudhry, The Sandman), video chatting with law student Maymouna (Sajal Aly, Ishq e laa) and following what happens from there — right through to three days of colourful ceremonies in Lahore, which Zoe records and the excited Cath wouldn't miss for the world — obstruct and complicate Zoe and Kaz's unspoken but plain-as-day feelings for each other?
Inevitability drips through every moment of this sunnily shot and cosily staged movie as a result, but thankfully doesn't breed contempt. Again, that's thanks to James, Latif, their engaging performances and their comfortable rapport as What's Love Got to Do with It? embraces being exactly the type of fluffily predictable romantic comedy it is. That said, Khan and Kapur do take risks, but their film ends up worse for it. Although it's an eagerly knowing touch to have a former on-screen Cinderella play a woman who frames her love life as revised fairy tales, those narrated montages — popping up intermittently and told as bedtime stories to children, but echoing over Zoe's bad dates and morning-after regrets — flounder and feel like filler.
What's Love Got to Do with It? doesn't judge Zoe's romantic exploits, nor should it, just as it avoids the same with Kaz — but, while it's accepting of amorous mess and assisted marriage alike, it isn't always certain in its tone or thoughtful with its supporting characters. Thompson's role proves an inescapable example, as much of a treasure as the great English actor is (see: her phenomenal work in 2022's Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, plus too many other past parts to count). Instead of exuberant, free-spirited, or even a gleefully silly example of an older generation broadening their world, Cath comes off as one-note and cartoonish. A white woman whose personality is defined by her fixation on another culture was likely to, sadly, in a movie that's fine with skewing broad and affable over shooting for sparks.
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