Romance has been a part of storytelling for centuries. There’s a Greek myth that Zeus tore humanity from their original form of two heads, four arms, and four legs because he worried about their strength, thereby causing humanity to search for their other half for the rest of their existence. There’s Romeo & Juliet, although not a paragon of proper love in its fiery star-crossed adolescent characters. Then there’s Jack and Diane, Don’t Stop Believin’, Livin’ on a Prayer, 18th Floor Balcony, Here to Mars, and many other songs detailing love’s bond. Joining the cornucopia is the Shekhar Kapur-directed (Elizabeth) Jemima Khan-written What’s Love Got to Do with It?, a romantic comedy through the lens of Muslim diaspora whose unique perspective is hindered by the tropes of the genre.
When her ideas for a new documentary are shot down, Zoe (Lilly James) pitches her producers on a film centering her long-time friend and neighbor Kazim (Shazad Latif) as he begins the process of assisted marriage. Though Kazim welcomes Zoe to catalogue the process, the two’s disparate ideas of what love is in the modern world cause unexpected strife, forcing them each to confront their own belief systems.
There’s a strange conflict within What’s Love that makes the film difficult to appreciate beyond the surface. On the outside, it’s a compelling look at white supremacy and deconstructing myths about Muslim traditions through the structure of two neighboring families who’ve known each other for years. The children, represented by first-generation Londoner Kazim and Zoe, signify the new guard, those who share current perspectives on the world and may break from the prior generation’s traditions, creating discord in the process. The adults signify the Old World, whether it be Kazim’s parents encouraging their son to take part in an arranged marriage (now called “assisted marriage”) as part of their custom or Zoe’s single mother with her unintentionally malignant comments denoting the casual racism of the United Kingdom. When the film explores the schism that exists between the old and new, as well as the significance of the traditions themselves, What’s Love is the kind of film that surprises, not just because it possesses a romantic narrative, but because it leads with love for its characters, its subject matter, and the notion that old traditions are not necessarily outdated *nor* do they necessarily be held to in a steadfast manner. When the film interrogates the ways in which love shapes and changes us, often in unexpected ways, What’s Love contains the potential to encourage its audience to turn their attention inward to examine their own predilections, presumptions, and casual racism.
Except What’s Love is also a romantic comedy, meaning that, on the inside, it has to follow a strict expected path to which this genre tends to adhere. The lead characters, despite their differences at the start, will engage in a specific kind of reconciliation. Smartly, Khan sets up the path very early on through pieces of dialogue that come across very natural to the characters and their relationships without appearing as exposition. This is one of several subtle-yet-intentional tactics that lay the groundwork for the ending that helps set the story apart from other rom-coms that lambast an audience with all the “they-should-be-together” bits rather than let them occur in a more natural way. Though this is a net positive, What’s Love utilizes a very standard “marrying the wrong person” approach and, therefore, there’s little tension as to where the story is going. Not only that, but the interpersonal conflicts that seek to amplify the internal conflicts of the leads often goes against what the characters themselves say or do.
Of course, this is as much a signifier of the complexity of the human condition, but to hear a character, as is shown in the trailer, proclaim the “there’s no love greater than a mother’s love for their child” when the actions taken are in opposition to this stand out greatly. In this reviewer’s case, I was raised with the notion of “roots and wings” yet was explicitly given a strong cold shoulder for moving out of state to attend graduate school by this same person. People are fallible. They are allowed to exist as contradictions to their beliefs. In the case of the film, however, so much of the foundation of the character is structured on the strength of tradition and their faith, making the resolution seem forced rather than an expression of growth. Does it, as well as other shifts, make one feel the all-encompassing glow of love that a rom-com seeks to imbue within their audience? Absolutely. But, in doing so, it feels like “coming together” and more reductive to the core tenets of the characters via assimilation.
Thankfully, the performances from the cast, both leading and supporting, are a delight to watch on screen, thereby making one feel the intended emotions from start to finish. There’s great chemistry between them all, making the well-trod path a little more fresh in the undertaking. Personally, making Zoe be a character who reimagines fairytales with a feminist spin for her “nieces,” and having one of those tales be Cinderella (a character the actor played in the 2015 live-action Disney film) both amuses the audience on a meta level while also being a clever way to express the character’s worldview is an absolute delight, and James conveys an honesty and affection rather than an agenda. If not told by Khan and Kapur, there are a multitude of elements which would not garner the authenticity intended and the whole of the film would seem very white washy/white saviory, but, in conjunction with the actors who are game for looking a little foolish, the honesty shines through.
Ultimately, What’s Love Got to Do with It? (as odd a name as it is when the Tina Turner doc possessed the same name for better reason) is exactly what one expects from a romantic comedy, for better or worse. It approaches the genre with a fresh perspective that allows it to explore areas that fans of the genre may not typically trod, but there are few surprises within to elevate it. But, as the film itself declares, “fine is ok.” And there’s nothing wrong with that.
In theaters May 5th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Studiocanal What’s Love Got to Do with It? webpage.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.