This romcom breaks new ground, but is still pretty basic

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

What’s Love Got to Do with It?
Opens May 19
3 out of 5

Is there a whiter subgenre than the romantic comedy? All the classics, even recent ones, are eminently Caucasian. Notting Hill? Four Weddings and a Funeral? Whiter than Wonder Bread. The Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks trilogy? Blindingly white. Love Actually? At least Chiwetel Ejiofor is there… marrying a 17-year-old Keira Knightley. But that’s another matter.

As quality went down (remember last decade’s “friends with benefits” craze?) and lack of representation became an issue, new possibilities opened up, nearly all of them in the culture clash realm. Through movies like The Big Sick and Crazy Rich Asians, the romcom became a thing again, perhaps more substantial than before.

Just two months ago, the unheralded and very charming Rye Lane (Disney+) proved the hyperverbal meet-cute formula (a.k.a. “the Richard Curtis”) works as fine with two Black leads in multicultural South London as it does in the West End — down to a Colin Firth cameo.

Which brings us to What’s Love Got to Do with It? (no relation to the 1993 Tina Turner biopic), a smart, sweet take on arranged…sorry, assisted marriages.

Zoe (Lily James, back from that questionable gig as Pamela Anderson) is a documentary filmmaker in need of a subject. In desperation, she convinces her neighbour and best friend Kazim (Shazad Latif, Star Trek: Discovery) to let her record his efforts to find a wife the traditional Pakistani way: by hiring a matchmaker. After he fails to produce a match, it’s up to Kazim’s parents to deliver.

This being a romcom, Zoe comes to the realization she may be interested in Kazim. Rather than act on it, though, she gets involved with terrible dudes as a form of distraction. In turn, Kazim puts all his faith on his process, overlooking red flags left, right, and centre.

Directed by Shekhar Kapur, the movie is at its best when dealing with issues of cultural difference. Principal among them is the idea of “assisted” marriage, which is often considered a Third World anachronism. But if your parents know you better than anyone, why not give them a chance to find a good match for you?

The film also does a good job of portraying a Muslim community in modern urban London — including the microaggressions they face daily (“where are you really from?”).

The movie comes up short in one key aspect however: the central couple. Instead of the audience witnessing how good Zoe and Kazim are together, we’re told about their shared past. But their interactions are far from convincing. A running joke that reimagines fairy tale princesses as liberated women runs out of steam quickly, yet sputters on until the end. Kudos on breaking new ground. But the basics are the basics. ■