When My Big Fat Greek Wedding came out in 2001, it seemed for a minute there as if Nia Vardalos could be the new voice middle-aged women, speaking out for the pudgy and the awkward and proclaiming, yes, you too can find love! Of course Vardalos then followed that up with flops Connie & Carla and My Life In Ruins, so with a girl-power spot open, here comes Gurinder Chada rushing into the breach.
Chadha was at Sundance in 2002 to debut a little soccer movie called Bend It Like Beckham, and now she's back with It's A Wonderful Afterlife, a movie that's precisely as goofy and feel-good as the title suggests. Mileage will vary on whether or not it's too silly to stand-- people in my audience howled with laughter when the movie went into an extended Carrie reference and swooned when the transparently obvious romance finally worked out, but it's just as easy to roll your eyes too.
Revisiting the London-based Indian diaspora that felt so fresh in Bend It Like Beckham, It's A Wonderful Afterlife goes off the loony premise of a frustrated mother (Shabana Azmi) who strikes back at all the people who were mean about her daughter by murdering them with Indian food. Smothered with naan, fed curry until a stomach explodes, hit with a rolling pin, stabbed with a kebab stick-- the four ghosts come back to Mrs. Sethi to haunt her until she's ready to die. Because she won't die until her daughter Roopi (Goldy Notay) gets married, she and the ghosts set out on a matchmaking expedition.
Don't ask how four ghosts who Roopi can't see are helping with the matchmaking, and definitely don't ask about the potential heartbreaking ramifications of a mother planning her own death. This is a movie that's too committed to being silly to stop for breath, and rolls along through comic setpieces (yoga! speed dating!) and minor subplots, barely taking the time to mine the jokes out of them. Over on the sidelines Roopis' friend Linda (Sally Hawkins, always welcome) is engaged to a guy after having found enlightenment at an ashram in India, and somewhere else Raj (Sendhil Ramamurthy) is trying to solve the case of the murders, all the while falling in love with Roopi.
Chadha said the wanted to make the film precisely to do another Indian wedding scene and turn it into the prom from Carrie, so maybe it's best to keep that in mind to avoid hoping for too much more from it. The wedding scene is indeed fun, as are the breezy montages of Roopi gaining more confidence, and the quartet of ghosts (who grow in numbers as the film goes on) are clearly having a blast as the campiest spirits since Casper. There's an attempt at an undercurrent of feminist power in the movie, but you need to get past the notion of poisoned samosas to do it first.
Still, this is a movie I could imagine taking my mom to see, and it's always fun to see a good-natured comedy set somewhere a little less familiar to Americans. But Chadha here has done nothing to convince skeptics who might accuse her of repeating the successful Beckham formula-- even though plenty of satisfied customers might be perfectly happy that she didn't.
For more of our Sundance 2010 coverage, click here.