What’s Love Got to Do with It? is an incredibly frustrating film, with a script that manages to feel both thoughtful in some parts and offensive in others.
Deep down, I think there is a great film inside What’s Love Got to Do with It?. Unfortunately though, what we ended up getting was a movie that constantly feels at odds with itself. A genuinely interesting story tackling the discourse around arranged marriages head-on is held back from ever reaching its potential, weighed down by the unnecessary inclusion of an overly generic and frustrating rom-com plot, and all of the typical tropes that come along with that. For every interesting and thoughtful scene regarding arranged marriages and the stigma around them, there are three more that feel ripped straight out of a generic, uninteresting Netflix comedy, completely disrupting the flow of the story and eventually resulting in an ending that encapsulates the entire film: frustrating and just missing the mark.
What’s Love Got to Do with It? follows Zoe (Lily James), an award-winning documentary filmmaker, who decides to document her childhood friend Kaz’s (Shazad Latif) arranged marriage. From the start, the film is split between two storylines of massively varying quality. The first is a genuinely moving and thought-provoking story about the pros and cons of arranged marriages, why people are willing to take part in them and whether or not they lead to healthy relationships. Everything about the film shines when it’s focusing on this narrative, Latif in particular makes for a great leading man, possessing the natural charisma to make the audience root for him from the first second they’re introduced. The scenes set in Lahore are easily the film’s best, with some great music and production design on display to complement the generally solid performances.
That’s about where the praise ends, though, as the second storyline featured is what turns the film into an incredibly frustrating experience. Whilst Lily James herself is fine in the leading role, her character feels completely unnecessary here, almost a caricature of typical rom-com protagonists. Zoe is obsessed with love and as a character, she has almost nothing more to her aside from the fact that she’s single and desperate to be in a relationship. When tackling the complex subject of arranged marriages, the film generally succeeds in giving us a balanced, thoughtful portrayal, showing both successful and unsuccessful instances, which makes it even stranger whenever Zoe chirps up from the corner of a room shouting about how arranged marriages are despicable. She is the ultimate white saviour, fully committed to saving her childhood friend from an arranged marriage that he wants and feels completely fine about it.
It doesn’t help Zoe’s case that everything in the film surrounding her character is just painfully uninteresting compared to whenever the focus is on Kaz. Emma Thompson stars as Zoe’s mother Cath, but her performance here feels like a parody of stereotypical embarrassing rom-com mums, never once being anything close to funny. For reasons I couldn’t quite figure out, Cath comes along to Lahore with Zoe for the wedding and her constant, forced inclusion in almost every scene just feels strange and awkward. The film feels scared to focus on anything to do with arranged marriages, constantly feeling the need to shove in these odd, clichéd white characters, pulling screen time away from the characters and stories which deserve it and robbing the film of an actually interesting portrayal of its subjects.
One of the biggest problems is simply that the film can’t think of a single interesting thing to do with any of the film’s white characters. They’re not particularly funny, they don’t have any kind of development, and even Lily James lacks any real kind of chemistry with Latif, which makes so many of their scenes just feel awkward and sluggish. It’s definitely not a coincidence that the film feels infinitely more energetic whenever James and Thompson aren’t on screen, and due to this, the pacing feels incredibly odd. The movie as a whole can frequently feel overly long and uncomfortable, with James’ character starting to grate very quickly, especially in any scene where she talks about arranged marriages.
This all results in an ending which perfectly summarises all of the film’s issues up to that point into one last painful scene, ending the whole experience on an incredibly sour note. As a whole, What’s Love Got to Do with It? isn’t terrible, but it might be the most frustrating type of film to watch. It completely sabotages itself from start to finish, tripping over every time it starts to get going. Perhaps if it completely removed Zoe from the equation, then it could have ended up as an interesting portrayal of arranged marriages, but as it is, it’s frustrating at best and offensive at worst, desperate to shove in its white saviour whenever it can. Shazad Latif’s performance deserves so much better.
What’s Love Got To Do With It? will be available to watch in US theaters on May 5, 2023. In the UK, the film was released theatrically on February 24 and is now available to watch on digital and on demand.