One of the great stories of this Sundance Film Festival, perhaps the biggest story in my book, has been the proliferation of female directors. From first-timers like Kate Aselton to established veterans like Nicole Holofcener and Lisa Cholodenko, from documentaries to thrillers set in the Ozarks, it's been impossible to categorize or compartmentalize the variety of films coming from distaff directors. It's an amazing trend and, given the youth of some of these helmers, a hopeful sign for the future of an industry that has yet to see a woman win a Best Director Oscar (knock on wood for Kathryn Bigelow).
My favorite film of the Festival (with two to go tomorrow) remains Debra Granik's "Winter's Bone," but that doesn't mean that female directors have had a perfect record at this Sundance. On Wednesday (Jan. 27) alone, I saw the lackluster "The Romantics," from Galt Niederhoffer, as well as the broad and silly "It's a Wonderful Afterlife," from Gurinder Chadha, both from the fest's Premieres roster.
Since my colleague Gregory Ellwood has already reviewed "The Romantics" -- he liked it more than I did, though I enjoyed Anna Paquin's performance and all of the beautiful people in the film (I'm already calling it "Sookie Getting Married") -- I'll hold off on that one for one of several digest review posts later in the week.
But a full review of "It's a Wonderful Afterlife" -- Think "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" meets "The Frighteners" by way of "Bend It Like Beckham" -- is after the break...
Now obviously, I just implied that "It's a Wonderful Afterlife" is the bastard stepchild of one very good film (I love "The Frighteners"), one mediocre film ("Bend It Like Beckham" has its moments, but not enough) and one horrible film (Never forget that "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" made $241 million domestic). Where does "It's a Wonderful Afterlife" fall in that continuum?
Well, unfortunately it's closer to "My Big Fat British-Indian Wedding." Goldy Notay plays Roopi, a young woman who can't find a husband because she's a little overweight, a little opinionated and a little mustache prone. That hasn't stopped her mother (Shabana Azmi) from meddling into Roopi's private affairs, trying to make a love match.
Meanwhile, London is being terrified by the Curry Killer, a serial murderer whose murder weapon of choice is Indian cuisine. On the case is Detective Sergeant Murthy (Sendhil Ramamurthy), who knew Roopi when they were children and just might be the answer to her romantic prayers, if only they can avoid being attacked by a pile of piping hot naan.
Oh and did I mention that the Curry Killer is a character we meet early on, a character being haunted by all four of their victims, apparitions still sporting their fatal wounds and decomposing rapidly as the film progresses?
Will it be easier for the ghosts to find peace or for Roopi to find love?
Scripted by Chadha and husband Paul Mayeda Berges, "It's A Wonderful Afterlife" keeps the ethnic jokes coming at a good-natured pace that few other movies would dare attempt. And while the ethnic jokes are played so broadly that anybody will be able to laugh at their enthusiasm, there's a specificity and insider quality that I could both recognize and appreciate. I mean, who *doesn't* enjoy a good Bengali put-down? Oh, put your hand down. I didn't say I found the ethnic humor in "It's A Wonderful Afterlife" to be funny. It's a big screen minstrel show, really, reenforcing Indian ethnic stereotypes while sometimes debunking them.
But most minstrel shows don't have chicken tikka and ghosts, much less casts including Azmi, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jimi Mistry and an assortment of other top-line Ian actors (plus Zoe Wanamaker, who really must have wanted to cash a movie check).
This will only amuse me, but "It's A Wonderful Afterlife" is shot by Dick Pope, ace lenser for Mike Leigh. Pope is usually so terrific at capturing the authenticity of urban London that I'm going to assume that the flat, overlit, vibrantly colored style of "It's a Wonderful Afterlife" is completely intentional. I don't like if I *like* it, but I suspect it's an aesthetic homage or update on the vintage Ealing Studios comedies, which probably means that if Sendhil Ramamurthy's role had been played by Peter Sellers in brown-face, it almost certainly would have been funnier.
Ramamurthy is bland and pretty and that's all the part asks from him. You mostly need to believe that Caucasian and Indian women alike would swoon over him and I have no trouble buying that, particularly from fans who stopped watching "Heroes" before it started to stink. Ramamurthy is dull enough and Notay spunky enough that you can ignore the much-discussed gap in prettiness (Notay is, of course, quite attractive when she's finally allowed to be), not that they have any chemistry amidst the genre-twisting chaos.
The only person who departs "It's A Wonderful Afterlife" with her dignity complete intact is Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins, who's absolutely daffy and inspired in a supporting role as Roopi's Indian fetishizing friend. Every time she's on screen, she brings a goofy spark, especially in her a climactic moment that reenacts a slasher classic and delivered the only out-loud laughter I got the entire movie.
Although she struck a chord with "Bend it Like Beckham," Gurinder Chadha hasn't been able to repeat the magic with "Bride and Prejudice" or "Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging," which never received a domestic release. "It's A Wonderful Afterlife" has a wide enough variety of genre elements that I'd be a smart company could market it in the States, at least until viewers actually see the movie which, without Chadha's name, never would have been allowed anywhere near the Sundance Film Festival.