My Big Fat Brit Life

Beyond Bollywood: Soccer-mad teens cross cultures to carve out their own field of dreams.Photo: Christine Parry

Parminder K. Nagra, the young actress who plays the soccer-obsessed Indian daughter Jess in Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham, has a vivacity that can’t be faked. Charging down the field, Jess seems as alive as anyone can possibly be; you fully believe that this girl would do anything, even deceive her traditional-minded, disapproving parents, in order to play her heart out. Set in Southall and West London, Bend It Like Beckham is at best a moderately genial frolic, though it has been a smashing success in the U.K. I suppose the film is no more unconventional than My Big Fat Greek Wedding, to which it has a certain eerie similarity, but I like it more than that sitcom-masquerading-as-a-movie (which, big surprise, has been spun into a TV series for CBS). It’s not as calculating.

Like Greek Wedding, Bend It Like Beckham is about a daughter who is attracted to an outsider—her Irish soccer coach, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as if he were Heathcliff—and there are lots of comic, Bollywood-style complications about dutiful daughters and wedding arrangements. Jess’s adoration of the British soccer sensation David Beckham, whose picture adorns her bedroom, is the first tip-off that this headstrong girl is not going to play by her family’s rules. Her father tells Jess she must become a proper woman, like her older sister, and her mother wants her to master the culinary arts of the perfect wife. Guess who wins out in the end?

The best audience for this film is probably teen and preteen girls who are looking for something only a bit more exotic than the usual mall fare. Every generation has to discover the same clichés that were drummed into previous generations, and kids could do worse than to learn them from this film. At least it’s not set in Anytown, U.S.A.

I wish directors who make movies about druggies would resist the temptation to turn their films into simulated head trips. I barely made it through Requiem for a Dream, what with all the shock cuts and whammo graphics. Things were at least simpler back in the days of Easy Rider and The Trip, with their almost innocent little flower-power divertissements and oh-wow visuals. Spun, the latest movie drug ride, is about L.A. meth junkies, and practically everyone in the impressive cast, including Jason Schwartzman, Mena Suvari, John Leguizamo, Brittany Murphy, and Mickey Rourke, has really bad skin, teeth, and hair. So far so good. But they are all upstaged by the pyrotechnics of director Jonas Akerlund, whose music-video and commercial background is all too evident.

Akerlund is the kind of director who can’t just show someone slamming a car door; he has to shoot an extreme close-up, then another, coupled with earsplitting sound effects. His extraordinarily ugly bleached visual palette would probably make even Monica Bellucci look like a cadaver, but one actor—Rourke—burns through the bleach and makes his presence felt. As the cowboy-hatted wild man who cooks up speed in his motel-room lab, Rourke, who looks at home in his tattoos, is mesmerizingly grungy. He strikes a rare note of authenticity in this otherwise phony fandango.

Frances McDormand deserves much better than Lisa Cholodenko’s flat-footed Laurel Canyon, in which she plays a famed record producer living in the Hollywood Hills who is visited by her psychiatrist son (Christian Bale) and his fiancée (Kate Beckinsale) and proceeds to turn their cozy twosome upside down. McDormand alone makes the picture worth seeing: Her character is a rash combo of steel and dissolution and regret.

Bend It Like Beckham
Directed by Gurinder Chadha.

Directed by Jonas Akerlund; starring Jason Schwartzman, John Leguizamo, Mena Suvari, and Mickey Rourke.

My Big Fat Brit Life