Prosaic Nations

With its lunatic genre freak-outs and intimidating quantity, Indian cinema is as difficult to nail down as a blob of mercury, but you'd never know it from the rare imported samples. What we see are Westernized half-breeds, divested of poverty and safety-padded for weekends at the middle-class art house. (The recent exception is Santosh Sivan's chilly indie The Terrorist, itself out of sync with India's uncorkable snap-crackle-pop.) Mira Nair's new Monsoon Wedding is the prototype: Delhi-set, yet sourced out of Hollywood chestnuts (Father of the Bride, for starters) and fastidiously divested of exotic Bollywood high jinks. The pervasive reach of American Everything is part of the fabric. Nair has, in fact, globalized her own movie, a loose and swoony wedding comedy that has less to say about its society than Nancy Savoca's True Love or even Robert Altman's A Wedding said about theirs.

The director—whose "international productions" following her debut, Salaam Bombay!, include Mississippi Masala, The Perez Family, and Kama Sutra—is no stranger to blithe assimilation. Occupying a well-manicured landscape festooned with orange marigolds and peopled by hip-hop-accented teens and Cosmo girls, Monsoon Wedding is an air-conditioned bus tour of Punjabi ritual. Nair stuffs the film with dancing, henna, ornamentation, and group song, but her narrative clichés and telegraphed episodes smell of old soap opera. The thicket of exposition (the work of rookie screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan) is dense, but it boils down to the stormy days preceding the arranged marriage of Aditi (Vasundhara Das, as dewy and saucer-eyed as Winona Ryder used to be) to Hemant (Parvin Dabas). Aditi loves a good-for-nothing married man, and petulantly considers her husband-to-be—who has flown in from Houston—her ticket out of misery. The upcoming day is also a significant trial for her financially strapped father, Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah), who handles the affair's speed bumps with Spencer Tracy-esque disgruntlement.

Nair manages her subplots by keeping them gauze-thin: Lalit's young, boarding-school-bound son just wants to dance ("I'm not going! I hate you!"); two cousins strike up a lazy romance; the wedding's larcenous event manager (Vijay Raaz) clumsily courts the maid (Tilotama Shome). The language—Delhi's stew of Hindi, Punjabi, and English, often cocktailed together in the same sentence—has plenty of spice, but the dialogue remains predictable. Nair flounders for drama until the family's adopted cousin (Shefali Shetty) releases her cannons on a pedophiliac uncle, a tangent that provides the hamstrung Lalit with a few badly needed dimensions and a heroic denouement.

An air-conditioned bus tour of Punjabi ritual: Shome in Monsoon Wedding
photo courtesy of USA Films
An air-conditioned bus tour of Punjabi ritual: Shome in Monsoon Wedding

Details

Monsoon Wedding
Directed by Mira Nair
Written by Sabrina Dhawan
USA
Opens February 22

Big Bad Love
Directed by Arliss Howard
Written by Howard & James Howard
IFC
Opens February 22

The Cherry Orchard
Written and directed by Michael Cacoyannis, from the play by Anton Chekhov
Kino
Opens February 22

You rescue pleasures from the florid sitcom boisterousness wherever you can: the untroubled gaiety of the wedding guests partying in a torrential downpour, the strange chastity of even the sexiest characters, the mysterious maid who nibbles on marigolds in slow motion and asks suddenly of her nervous suitor, "What happened?" when nothing happened at all. Top prizewinner at last year's presumably doleful Venice Film Festival, Monsoon Wedding could just as easily have been a WB-style series—Raj TV's answer to Felicity.


The local color in Arliss Howard's navel-magnifying indie Big Bad Love is of the distinctly slumming-movie-folk variety. Howard's film is based upon the semi-autobiographical volume of stories by Larry Brown, and details in standard sophomore-Bukowski fashion the trials of a hooch-sodden Southern jerk-off writer writing his first book about being a hooch-sodden Southern jerk-off writer. Howard's movie is as generous as a bourbon binge observed by the designated driver—90 percent of it follows the protagonist from the grocery store icebox and local bar to his compact Royal standard and rejection-slip-stuffed mailbox. Occasionally he'll brood, or do some housepainting. Paul Le Mat stops by for a beer.

Brown's saga, like many before his, makes for snappy prose but a stumblebum of a movie, even as it attempts to whiskey us up with bad Beat poetry, sloppy crosscutting, trendy cameos (bluesman R.L. Burnside), and stunningly clueless surreal cutaways that suggest Richard Lester back when the drugs were good. Starring as well as cowriting, coproducing, and directing, Howard seems exhausted by the protracted effort of smoking cigarette stubs. Playing a self-involved ape, Howard relinquishes the nominal aura of intelligent tenderness he possessed in the '80s, leaving nothing but posture. Blind alcoholic damage is regarded largely as dry comedy. Clearly, Howard and co-conspirator-wife Debra Winger see a romantic coolness in Brown that you must pledge allegiance to Maker's Mark to appreciate.


Allegiance to an author, at any rate, routinely kneecaps movies; allegiance to Chekhov, which director Michael Cacoyannis displays with somber earnestness in the new adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, is a particularly vexing handicap. Chekhov's plays are weightless zeppelins, suspended above drama and incident, and on film they can implode. Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street, based on a more character-driven play, solved the problem by pretending to be a performance and then slyly achieving a cinematic intimacy with the actors. Never a graceful filmmaker, Cacoyannis shoots his aristo-ghosts from a respectful distance. What's more, he stages the play in a decaying manor house that creepily evokes old-world class cannibalism but strands the cast (airy Charlotte Rampling, distracted Alan Bates) in a tangible, sunlit reality, where they're hitting their marks and declaring like theater majors. As they intone Chekhov's repetitive, delusional dialogue, the play hungers for the artificial limits of stagecraft; the styles are antithetical. (The realism even makes Lyubov's five-year exile from home seem incongruous, as everyone repeatedly declares how both she and the house "haven't changed!") What might come off onstage as a stylized dance of death evaporates in the open air, particularly when actors like Owen Teale and Michael Gough begin masticating their moments. In many scenes, Cacoyannis has succeeded in clarifying how redundant and simplistic The Cherry Orchard is—the sins of 19th-century slaveholding come home to roost again and again. There's one haunting scene: the orchard stroll at twilight, wherein the characters spend a brief moment standing still in the warm dusk, wondering what to do. But Cacoyannis cuts it short, preferring to shortchange the image and venerate the text.

 
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