While the world awaits the worrisome prospect of a Pride and Prejudice remake starring Keira (shudder!) Knightley, her former benefactor, filmmaker Gurinder Chadha, has beaten her to the punch with Bride and Prejudice, a modern-day, clash-of-cultures romance "inspired" by Jane Austen's literary classic and informed by brassy Bollywood tradition and paying proper homage to neither.
In Chadha's limited conception, Austen's heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, has become Lalita Bakshi (Aishwarya Rai), a proud young woman from Amritsar, India, who's thrust into the role of national spokeswoman when a visiting trio of foreign guests arrives for a wedding. Among them is Will Darcy (Martin Henderson), a hunky American hotelier who means well but keeps putting his foot in his mouth when it comes to honestly assessing his humble surroundings. Sparks fly with the offended Lalita, a character meant to convey independence and the rejection of materialism; instead she comes off as a tiresome walking lecture. As these two squabbling pretties fall slowly but inevitably in love, Chadha touches lightly on plot lines lifted from Austen's text, wringing matrimonial melodrama out of the affairs of Lalita's three sisters (down from four in the novel and providing enough scripted activity for one and a half).
Chadha obviously aspired to give Austen's material a clever overhaul like the one Amy Heckerling pulled off in Clueless. But there's nothing clever about Bride, which plays like an excuse to use an established narrative as camouflage for the essential triteness of the filmmaker's standard preoccupations (a quality that had already begun to rear its ugly head in her far superior debut, Bend It Like Beckham). Unlike Heckerling, Chadha fails to find a workable colloquial equivalent for Austen's period wit. Dialogue scenes fizzle out in clunking non-punchlines that are as banal as the lyrics to the cornball musical numbers that keep interrupting the proceedings. (One ditzily choreographed little annoyance, "No Life Without Wife," performs the twin functions of acting as the film's de facto rallying cry and seeming to go on forever.)
Anything that transpires that remains of interest is to Austen's credit, not Chadha's unless you want to count the colorful costumes and attractive faces that provide momentary, cosmetic distraction from the puerile depiction of cross-cultural cooperation. What we have here is U.N. diplomacy by way of the food court.
Next up for the director is a big-screen version of (I kid you not) I Dream of Jeannie. Nice to know she's finding her level. Here's an even better idea: How about a remake of Petticoat Junction in which the Bradley sisters get married off to the available lawmen from The Andy Griffith Show? Remember, ladies, there's no life without Fife.