Many American comedies of the 1980s were characterized by amusing situations, rather than genuinely humorous dialog (think Mannequin or Soul Man). The decades haven’t been kind to films of this style, because they simply aren’t funny. The British comedy It’s a Wonderful Afterlife relies on this ’80s style of humor, and as such, already feels dated.
The movie opens with a man — having been force-fed too much spicy curry in by a faceless villain — receiving treatment in a hospital room, only to have his stomach explode, spraying its contents all over the room. There’s no context for the gag, so it’s not at all humorous, just disgusting. Not a good way to start a movie.
The exploding man is explained to be the latest victim of a serial killer targeting members of the Indian community in the London suburb of Southall. The police, led by inspector Smythe (Mark Addy), enlist the help of a detective of Indian descent named Raj (Sendhil Ramamurthy) to search for clues within the community.
Raj is the childhood friend of Roopi (Goldy Notay), an overweight young woman still recovering from being dumped by her fiance. Roopi’s mother, Mrs. Sethi (Shabana Azmi), is desperate to see her daughter married — so desperate that she’s been killing prospective husbands that have rejected Roopi, as well as their family members, using her culinary skills.
Mrs. Sethi is haunted by the ghosts of her victims, who can’t move on until Mrs. Sethi is dead. The only other person who can sense the ghosts is Roopi’s best friend, Linda (Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins), who’s renamed herself Geetali after a spiritual awakening on a trip to India. Mrs. Sethi promises to kill herself after Roopi is married, provided the ghosts help her accomplish her mission.
It’s a Wonderful Afterlife is full of missed opportunities. The ghosts, who should be a goldmine of humor, instead offer bland observations and little in the way of assistance to Mrs. Sethi, as they have no supernatural powers. Their decaying visages are pointlessly gross.
Mrs. Sethi should be a source of comedy herself, but she’s dull as well. She never exhibits a hint of the kind of rage one would need to feel in order to commit murder (all but one of the murders happen off-screen). Her conversations with the ghosts are just boring exposition.
Part of the movie’s problem is that the Roopi and her mother get overshadowed by the ghosts, the cops, and especially Linda. Much screen time is spent on Linda’s psychic abilities, scenes in which Roopi, the heroine, acts as a passive observer. Roopi’s budding romance with Raj is shown in a short musical montage, yet a multiple scenes are devoted to Linda’s engagement to Dev (Jimi Mistry). Linda’s even the star of the film’s climax, a revolting homage to the movie Carrie.
Sally Hawkins is good as Linda, and newcomer Goldy Notay gives a strong performance as Roopi as well. I’d have preferred that she be given more to do, as the movie is all about Roopi’s want of a husband, after all. Still, there’s not much that could have saved It’s a Wonderful Afterlife — not even a pandering shot of Sendhil Ramamurthy shirtless — since the alleged comedy just isn’t funny.