The most profitable film in the history of India is the romantic comedy 3 Idiots, which, according to the formal strictures of its industry, is a jolly and epic musical that runs about 70 minutes per idiot. For beautiful YouTube dada, it’s hard to beat “Zoobi Doobi,” a sexy goof of a cabaret duet between one idiot and his lover; at its highlight, the two stand soaked on a vine-roped wooden swing above dozens of blue umbrellas that pulse open and closed. Better still: The locker-room singalong “All Izz Well,” where we see sudsy fellows, towels at their waists, caper about and hose each other, while the camera glides over the toilet stalls, peering down at whistling poopers.
There’s terrific joy in these numbers, much coming from their jubilant artificiality: Just as in Thirties Hollywood, nobody making or watching the movie cares that everything we’re seeing is obviously on a soundstage someplace, dreamed up by craftsfolks eager to top whatever they did in the last picture.
Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the producer of 3 Idiots and a revered Bollywood director in his own right, has ambitions other than showtune dazzlement. Broken Horses, his latest, is a modern-day American indie revenge western, based on the kind of script that seemed to come out of a spigot someplace after Reservoir Dogs hit. Here, in a small — presumably Texan — town, the local crimelords meet in the lobby of a gorgeous abandoned movie theater to suss out who the rat is. One hood assembles his automatic while a violinist tears through a Paganini rapture; the hits and head-shots ordered by another are intercut for us with the pulping of oranges for his juice, which I guess makes a point about things.
The story is a borderland/movieland piffle about two brothers — one a concert musician (Anton Yelchin) who has moved to New York, the other a slow-witted townie (Chris Marquette) who as a child gunned down his sheriff father’s murderer — who find themselves at odds with those crimelords for some reason. Loyalties will be tested, past sins will be exhumed, and Chopra will demonstrate his facility for the most important aspects of popular American moviemaking: He’s excellent at filming stern-faced men slowly walking toward the terrible things they have to do. Other things he aces: Those men feeling bad afterwards; those men’s trucks and SUVs cruising along in foreboding caravans; not letting those men perform their violence until just before or after you expect them to; and shunting the women out of the plot entirely.
The musician brother’s fiancée (María Valverde) comes down from her hilariously appointed New York apartment — her window’s view of Manhattan, studded with a Batman-esque full moon, looks like the backdrop of a late-night talk show. Valverde stars in the film’s most ridiculous moment: Her midnight, weirdly near-topless horse ride is as odd as “All Izz Well.” And she’s the subject of another: The dimmer brother takes a shine to her, saying, “I liked her the very second she spelled her name for me.”
The film aspires to the lurid and the mythic, all while asking us to invest fully in its sweet but ridiculous fraternal relationship. It’s never credible, exactly, not the way Chopra’s inspired back-home thrillers Khamosh (1985) and Parinda (1989) were. It’s sometimes a little prim, but its suspense scenes are well executed, and Chopra composes complex, arresting images full of reflections and natural split-screen effects that I only wish were illustrative of some meaning. If he kept at it, he might make a bang-up American thriller someday — but is it wrong to wish that his aspirations were instead to inject Hollywood with some of the zest of 3 Idiots?