The romantic drama What’s Love Got to Do with It? is unconvincing. The characters seem like they popped into existence just before the events of the movie, and they don’t act like real people.
Lily James stars as “award-winning documentary filmmaker” Zoe. Shazad Latif plays her lifelong pal Kaz, who’s a successful doctor. Zoe’s mom Cath (Emma Thompson) still lives next door to Kaz’s family, and the treehouse where Zoe and Kaz played as kids still sits in the Khan family’s backyard.
Cath is cringe personified, and not in an amusing way. She emerges from the Khans’ house after attending Kaz’s brother’s wedding and declares, “Wasn’t it so wonderfully exotic?” Keep in mind that Cath has known the Khans for at least two decades and has attended multiple family weddings and holiday parties thrown by her Muslim neighbors.
The “exotic” remark is thankfully a one-off, but Kaz has to explain to Cath and Zoe other racist indignities experienced by Pakistani-Brits that his lifelong white neighbors should know by now. It is a huge missed opportunity (and a crime against cinema, frankly) that legendary actors Emma Thompson and Shabana Azmi — who plays Kaz’s mother Aisha — never share a meaningful scene together, which could have provided a chance to address cultural and social issues in a more organic fashion.
Zoe and Kaz are both in their early thirties, and while Zoe is committed to staying single, Kaz is ready to settle down. Having failed to find a girlfriend on his own, he asks his parents to find him a bride via a matchmaker. Zoe pressures Kaz into letting her film the experience for a documentary about arranged marriage tentatively titled “Love Contractually.”
Even this move to film Kaz’s matchmaking process is exotifying. Would Zoe and the bros at the production house providing the funding find white people filling out eHarmony profiles or going on speed dates prestige documentary material? Unlikely, yet that’s what the early stages of Kaz’s process amount to. At best, it’s reality show fodder — and even then they’d have to compete with Indian Matchmaking.
When Kaz fails to click with any British women, he is introduced via Skype to a law student in Lahore named Maymouna (Sajal Aly, who played Sridevi’s stepdaughter in 2017’s Mom). Maymouna is utterly disinterested, but Kaz thinks she’s the one — mostly because she’s 22 and pretty. The Khans, Zoe, and her mom head to Lahore for the nuptials.
The movie takes the long way round to the inevitable conclusion that Kaz and Zoe are the ones who should be together. The meandering path involves a subplot where Zoe dates her mom’s dog’s veterinarian James (Oliver Chris), who she finds underwhelming even though he’s perfectly nice and cute. Zoe makes some equally questionable choices about her film that she springs on Kaz and his family without warning during a screening party. Why she would publicly ambush people she’s known and cared about her whole life is baffling.
For all Kaz’s complaints about not having chemistry with any of the women he’s met, he and Zoe have as much fizz as two-liter bottle of soda that’s been open for a week. Latif’s performance lacks energy, and James is undermined by a character who’s confoundingly written. What’s Love Got to Do with It? is as flat as its central romance.