Movie review: 'Bride and Prejudice'

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3 stars (out of 4)

Gurinder Chadha's "Bride and Prejudice" is a pretty movie, but it's also a pretty crazy one: an imitation Bollywood-Hollywood musical loosely based on Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." On the other hand, it's knowingly off-the-rails—and if you're in a tolerant or adventurous mood, very entertaining.

Chadha is the gifted Indian-British director of the beguiling 2002 sports comedy-drama "Bend it Like Beckham," a movie whose sleeper success obviously gave her some carte blanche. She's expended it here on a goofy and voluptuous dream project.

What can you say about a movie that translates Austen's famous opening sentence "It's a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" into the rocking pajama party quartet "No Life Without Wife," sung and danced by the bouncy Bakshi sisters headed by radiant star Aishwarya Rai? Or one that keeps flipping its characters from Amritsar, India, to London to L.A.—and, at one point, has an entire Amritsar open air market break out into song and dance (with English lyrics)?

Bollywood, of course, refers to that specifically Indian genre of musical romances that is its country's most popular movie form and, until recently, an object of neglect and scorn by many western film critics. It's a lavish, outlandish genre, just as the old Hollywood musicals were, built on grand purple emotions, operatic ballads and scintillating, gorgeously silly dances.

Chadha has pulled out all the stops here in partially recreating it, hiring Bollywood's biggest current star, Rai, as her leading lady; anchoring the cast with major Indian actors such as Namrata Shirodkar and Anupam Kher; and spicing it up with an American pop star, Ashanti. She also has hired one of the best Bollywood cinematographers (Santosh Sivan), the consensus best Bollywood choreographer (Saroj Khan) and a famous Bollywood composer (Anu Malik).

As for Austen's plot, it's already inspired many adaptations, including the famous MGM version with Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennett and Laurence Olivier as her mysterious beau William Darcy and the excellent 1995 BBC series, with one more on the way. But here it's kept only in outline and in riffs like "No Life Without Wife." There is a William Darcy, a hunky rich American played by Australian Martin Henderson and a sort of Elizabeth Bennett: the witty and independent Lalita Bakshi, played by Rai. And there are Bakshi's parents and sisters, who remind us of the Bennett originals, and a lower-class villain, Daniel Gillies' Johnny Wickham.

The performances to remember here include Rai's; she's an actress of great, piquant beauty (she's an international L'Oreal spokeswoman) and also a screen natural who sweeps through her musical numbers with a natural's smiling ease. And there's also the relatively unknown British stage actor Nitin Ganatra who, as the cloddish, L.A.-Indian suitor Mr. Kholi, conjures up a smiling idiot of such enjoyable silliness that he recalls Peter Sellers' whimsically cracked Indian movie characters.

A performance to forget (or at least forgive) is Henderson's Darcy. Though he manages a believable American accent, he's been written as too much of a dreamboat to have any edge.

The tale, like Austen's, is a romance in which Lalita and Darcy must overcome their initial antagonism—the highly verbal tiffs of brainy lovers—and a few mistaken assumptions. But though Chadha has made her production fascinatingly ornate and sumptuous-looking, she, unlike Austen, is not trying to be a social realist. The movie's connections with the real India and America are daydream-light.

Beyond those Austen plot echoes, "Bride and Prejudice" seems closer in story and even spirit to an Elvis Presley musical or something like "Week-end in Havana" with Carmen Miranda. It's a big, freewheeling hoot of a movie, which uses the Bollywood conventions—and a few Hollywood ones—in a mood of blithe playfulness and mocking expertise. The movie has its flaws, including a few weak performances and some catchy but forgettable songs, but they're mostly forgivable.

"Bride and Prejudice" is an intellectuals' excursion into a mad pop genre; what ultimately limits it is the fact that Chadha, in making a crazy film, isn't quite nutty enough to turn it into a classic.

"Bride and Prejudice"

Directed by Gurinder Chadha; written by Paul Mayeda Berges and Chadha, inspired by Jane Austen's novel, "Pride and Prejudice"; photographed by Santosh Sivan; edited by Justin Krish; production designed by Nick Ellis; music by Craig Pruess and Anu Malik; lyrics by Zoya Akhtar, Farhan Akhtar, Chaman Lal Chaman, Berges, Dev Kholi, Malik; produced by Deepak Nayar, Chadha. In English, Hindi and Punjabi, with English subtitles. A Miramax release of a Pathe Pictures presentation; opens Friday. Running time: 1:51. MPAA rating: PG-13 (some sexual references).

Lalita Bakshi - Aishwarya Rai
Will Darcy - Martin Henderson
Mr. Bakshi - Anupam Kher
Mrs. Bakshi - Nadira Babbar
Balraj Bingley - Naveen Andrews
Jaya Bakshi - Namrata Shirodkar
Johnny Wickham - Daniel Gillies
Mrs. Darcy - Marsha Mason
Mr. Kholi - Nitin Gantara

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