One of the criticisms levelled at romantic comedies aka rom-coms more often than not is that they are light and ephemeral as their frothy subject matter.
It’s an unfair dig in many respects since most rom-coms are simply there to transport us from the ugly, loveless everyday and into a world where love happens, is perfect (a few trips to the airport impelled by earlier poor romantic decision making aside); they are not, despite what some critics believe, there to cast a withering observational eye at the tired, broken world around them.
Some attempt too, however, such as Working Title’s latest trip down a particularly British meet-cute lane, What’s Love Got To Do With it?, which features Shazad Latif and Lily James as Kazim and Zoe, two early thirty-somethings who have lived next to each other all their lives in one of those picture-perfect streets in London, their families as close to kin as you could hope for.
Their relationship is a distillation of modern, multicultural Britain – Kazim’s family are Pakistani immigrants, their Muslim faith and adherence to culture and family vitally important and identity defining, while Zoe and her freewheeling mum Cath (Emma Thompson) who’s still bitter about being dumped for a 35-year-old are, as Kazim observes at one point in the film, a continent apart, embracing of their Muslim neighbours but not fully understanding what their culture really means to them. (Cath adores Kazim’s family, including mum Aisha (Shabana Azmi) and dad Zahid (Jeff Mirza) and enthusiastically joins and all Khan family gatherings but she’s also hilariously blind to what it all really means, despite her goodwill and obvious sincerity and love for the family.)
Still, Kazim and Zoe remain good friends, Zoe off making award-winning documentaries while Kazim works as an oncology registrar, a career choice that, he admits, stands at great odds with his secret smoking habit which he undertakes in the family’s lavish treehouse in the garden, a place removed from the loving hustle and bustle of Kazim’s close family, and where he and Zoe kissed when they were kids.
Surely all that young love and simmering romantic tension – it’s there but one of the small missteps of What’s Love Got To Do With it? is that it underplays this with such gusto that the payoff at the end, and yes, you know, precisely what that will be, feels a little forced, inauthentic and sudden – is going to resolve itself in Kazim and Zoe declaring their great undying love for each other all these many years later?
If this was any other rom-com, that might likely be the case.
But very early on, and no doubt with an eye on trying to tell a more complex and culturally meaningful story, one which examines what arranged marriages aka assisted marriages look like in the modern day, and how Western cultures such as Britain don’t fully appreciate what it offers and means to those who practise it, What’s Love Got To Do With it? makes it clear it’s not going to go down the expected route.
Rousing speeches are why arranged marriage matters and how family and religion trump all other considerations – Kazim may smile a lot and enjoy an easy, joking rapport with Zoe but he’s deadly serious about being a loyal member of the Khan family – and his early decision to ask his parents to find him a bride are nailed very firmly to the narrative mast, clear signs of the film’s intention to be Very Serious Indeed.
So committed does the film seem to its goal of elevating assisted marriages as a viable alternative, and being authentic to its Pakistani cultural influences that it goes as far as taking Kazim and his family to Lahore, Pakistan where the handsome doctor’s marriage to a clearly reluctant and resolutely doleful Maymouna (Sajal Ali) takes place.
Along for the ride is Zoe who is filming Kazim’s journey into arranged marriage as part of her next documentary which rather sweetly, if awkwardly titled Love Contractually (an in-joke given that Working Title, the producer’s of the film, also gave us Love, Actually).
Up until this point, Zoe has seemed simply like a fast and supportive friend, someone who is emotionally invested in Kazim’s life because after a lifetime of knowing each other of course she is, but who is more concerned with dating terrible men and being independent, something Cath tries her best to support while manifestly also failing to do so.
What’s Love Got To Do With it? appears thus for most of its 108-minute, largely well-judged running time to be committed to widening the scope of rom-com depiction and celebrating another entirely valid and largely successful way of finding the love of your life.
It talks loftily and airily of “walking into love”, has Kazim cite divorce statistics for love vs. arranged marriages (55% vs. 6% apparently) and goes all out to depict his choice as something worth elevating next to the usual happy-go-lucky rom-com meet-cute and its chaotically choice-filled path to happy-ever-after.
That is, until it doesn’t, and all that careful narrative work to place it equally alongside its more freewheeling Western equivalent is largely though not completely tossed glibly to one side.
Largely because, while Kazim decides, even after marrying Maymouna that his heart belongs to Zoe and that his family needs to be more accommodating and loving, especially to ostracised daughter, and Kazim’s sister Jamila (Mariam Haque), and sets about to free up their expectations and familial practices, the beauty of his parents’ marriage and that of other family members is held up as examples of how arranged marriage can work.
Even so, by bringing Kazim and Zoe together at the end – naturally Zoe’s late-in-the-piece boyfriend, his mum’s vet James (Oliver Chris) who is charming, caring and nice and thus doomed to be narratively dumped just before the film’s climax – and so quickly and with such narrative awkwardness that while they make a lovely couple it all feels a little too forced and uneven, What’s Love Got To Do With it? feels like all that hard work to be thoughtfully insightful and a step away from its usual, admittedly charmingly successful usual fare was all for absolutely nothing.
The message seems to be that free choice in love WINS and arranged marriage is a poor second – even Maymouna ends up with something she loves rather than the “insisted marriage” she’s saddled with – and while that may not be the intent for a film which does try hard to be culturally insightful, and Kazim and Zoe are gorgeously sweet together, as friends and more, What’s Love Got To Do With it? ends up feeling like a lesser-than rom-com which tries to reach for the romantic heavens and instead lands something in a field of plastic roses and second-rate chocolate boxes.