A modern rom-com with a clash-of-cultures twist, What’s Love Got to Do With It? stars the eminently likeable Lily James and a perfectly tall, dark, and handsome Shazad Latif as childhood friends and neighbours navigating their own love lives amidst vastly different cultural, but incredibly similar familial, expectations. Zoe (James) is a filmmaker who wants to document her friend Kaz’s (Latif) decision to have an arranged marriage. Along the way, she considers her own history of relationships while encountering successful (and unsuccessful) marriages in the UK and Pakistan.
The screenplay comes from English screenwriter Jemima Khan (née Goldsmith), who mines from some of her own life experiences living in Pakistan — and, we can imagine, from her previous marriage to Imran Khan, famous cricketer and later prime minister of Pakistan. Khan weaves a solid enough story initially, and the movie is well-mixed with bigger themes and debates about love, passion, commitment, marriage, and divorce.
At one point, Kaz argues that the rate of divorce in the UK is 55%, while for arranged marriages it’s 4%. The film takes a deep dive into modern arranged marriage customs — occasionally referred to as “assisted marriage” (“Like assisted suicide?” relationship-adverse Zoe quips) — and makes a convincing case for them. It’s especially effective when set against the world of modern dating, where people commonly review a list of profile stats (birthplace, education, interests, values, etc.) before meeting, anyway. Arranged marriage just adds parents into the process of finding a partner right away.
But by the end, the ultimate build-up of interesting ideas and arguments are twisted into an expected rom-com ending, while some secondary characters and their stories fall by the wayside. This is perhaps more an issue of editing and pacing than story. The nearly two-hour runtime feels like it could have been packed in just a little more, perhaps trimming the extraneous, third act storyline with Kaz’s family’s drama.
However, Emma Thompson’s entertaining turn as Zoe’s mother is a fresh look for her. Playing someone clueless about her cultural ignorance and far too pushy in trying to set her daughter up with a vet, Thompson taps into a very relatable version of a fussy boomer parent who is exasperating but also endearing, and just the right amount of harmless and hilarious.
Although there is definite chemistry between James and Latif, the dynamics set up between their characters do not serve the themes of the movie quite so well. Zoe and Kaz clearly have different values and points of view that seem to point towards an ultimately strong platonic relationship, not a romantic one.
Then comes the trickier cultural divisions that don’t really get reconciled. Things get a little meta as this “white lens/POC story” setup gets lampshaded by the movie itself, however, with other characters calling it out later. The film is directed by a South Asian filmmaker, the Oscar-nominated Shekhar Kapur, but the script comes from a white woman, Khan, and is filtered primarily by Zoe’s constant interrogation of Kaz’s decision to have an arranged marriage. That Zoe “wins” the overarching argument of the movie by starting a relationship with Kaz feels like a disservice to Kaz’s point of view. But it’s hard to be mad at a rom-com for the romance.
What’s Love Got to Do With It? opened in theatres on May 19.