What’s Love Got to Do With It? is a resoundingly mid-tier rom-com that would work a lot better if it wasn’t trying to be a rom-com. It’s a film with two strong characters going through relatable romantic crises of their own, but the story is forcing them together because it has no idea what else to do. Slavishly devoted to the British Working Title rom-com factory formula that spawned it (Four Weddings and a Funeral, the Bridget Jones franchise, Love Actually), What’s Love Got to Do With It? throws away the chance to deliver a good, meaningful film in favour of offering up something that’s barely adequate.
In addition to trolling dating apps and unsuccessfully looking for love, Zoe Stevenson (Lily James) is a documentary filmmaker struggling to get funding for her next project. Zoe’s producers want a feel good project, and the only idea that springs immediately to mind is profiling her lifelong best friend, Kazim (Shazad Latif). Literally the boy next door, Kaz is about to enter into an “assisted” marriage with a woman he has only briefly met over the internet. Kaz is open to the idea of building a relationship from the ground up, and his parents (Shabana Azmi and Jeff Mirza) are thrilled. Kaz invites Zoe – and her overbearing, overeager cartoon of a mother (Emma Thompson, turning in an extremely rare bad performance as misguided comedic relief) – to join his family on a trip to Pakistan for the wedding. While there, Zoe starts to realize that the love of her life might’ve been right before her eyes this entire time, and that Kaz might be making a big mistake, despite the cultural significance of his impending marriage.
The script from first time screenwriter Jemima Khan is frustrating to watch unfold. It’s not one of the worst rom-coms ever devised, but What’s Love Got to Do With It? consistently squanders the potential at the heart of its core concept. The main female protagonist might be a documentarian (which is amusing, since Khan’s background is largely in producing nonfiction films), but this is a case where watching a documentary about similar people would be more enriching, engaging, and less hokey than this version of events. There’s romance, there’s comedy, and here they aren’t meshing very well due to a strict adherence to convention that underwhelms at every turn.
Zoe is a well conceived modern woman on the page. She’s getting older, wants to have kids, but is also understandably choosy and analytical. She’s a loving aunt to her nieces, which is nice when one considers her sister’s marriage is crumbling. She’s professional, smart, kind, and knows her worth. What’s not to like about her? As her counterpart, Kaz is quirky, easy going, understanding, and patient. He isn’t entirely sold on his impending nuptials, but he has learned from a young age to accept this aspect of his culture. Kaz says he wants to experience a spark with someone, and questions why everyone keeps telling him why that isn’t necessary, and that love is something that needs to be “walked” into. Again, what’s not to like about him?
The problem isn’t with the people or the performers playing them, but rather with the story they’re caught up in. What’s Love Got to Do With It? spends so much time – admirably, to be fair – trying to flesh Zoe and Kaz out as individuals that it completely whiffs on the romance that’s eventually and predictably going to bring them together. The characters and the performances given by James and Latif always give off more friendly chemistry than romantic sparks. It’s more fulfilling and resonant to watch these characters go through their arcs on their own than it is watching them together. If What’s Love Got to Do With It? broke away from the rom-com template and simply let Kaz and Zoe stay supportive friends this would be more rewarding. They’re great individuals to build stories around, but the pat nature of What’s Love Got to Do With It? never convinces the viewer that these two absolutely need to be a couple. It borders on showing contempt for the viewer’s intelligence, presupposing that they can’t handle complexity in their rom-coms and they need to be force-fed the familiar.
This rote predictability also undoes a lot of the unique cultural specificity that’s a part of Kaz’s story. There’s almost as much time spent having James recite overly precious and on the nose versions of classic fairy tales via voiceover as there are sequences examining the culture surrounding assisted marriages and matchmaking. Director Shekhar Kaupr (Elizabeth) tries the best they can to inject What’s Love Got to Do With It? with visual life, but while the film looks better than a lot of other rom-coms, the filmmaker can’t perform miracles, especially when the story reaches a logical and more satisfying conclusion a full thirty minutes before everything wraps up. It looks great, the performances (with the exception of Thompson) are solid, and yet What’s Love Got to Do With It? struggles to forge its own identity.
What’s Love Got to Do With It? is a film with ethnic overtones meant to cater to predominantly white audiences who might be curious, but don’t want to be pushed too far, and in some ways want their own personal beliefs to be proven true. It’s a film actively aiming for crossover success by painting with only the broadest strokes possible when it has the potential to do so much more. The romance at the heart of What’s Love Got to Do With It? (a title that absolutely reminds viewers of a better movie and better song) is supposed to come across as organic, but it blindly refuses to realize that such stringent adherence to formula makes the whole thing feel like… well… an arranged marriage.
What’s Love Got to Do With It opens in cinemas across Canada – including at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto – on Friday, May 19, 2023.
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