If nothing else, "Bride and Prejudice" proves that the silly, ingenuous charm of Bollywood musicals becomes tedious and even downright dumb in English.
A cross-cultural adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" set in modern-day Bombay, London and Los Angeles, this is a trite, flimsy, groundless romance of shallow character stereotypes, ethnic hypocrisy, and horrible songs. But it does have one saving grace in talented, stunningly beautiful Indian superstar Aishwarya Rai.
As Lalita, the most independent and worldly of five sisters whose largely traditional parents have begun trying to marry them off, Rai has a radiant screen presence as she stands in for Austen's heroine Elizabeth Bennet. But she doesn't have much to work with except personality contradictions that betray a one-dimensional script -- and a suitor who is nothing short of insufferable, played by an actor without the chops to reveal his unsuspected depth.
Despite her many lectures about appreciating the Indian lifestyle (and songs with inane lyrics like "India's the place for me/India sets you free"), Lalita spends much of her time going to "Gidget"-like beach parties (where American pop singers make unmotivated cameos) and to discos that play Euro-techno dance music. She's also the only one in her family without an Indian accent.
In the course of the film, she's also attracted exclusively to Western men, including uppity Will Darcy (Martin Henderson, "The Ring") a culturally ignorant, wealthy and arrogant surfer-cum-yuppie from California, who is such an unmitigated jerk that the only way he can become her inevitable love interest is by way of an arbitrary personality transplant half way through the movie.
Director Gurinder Chadha ("Bend It Like Beckham") intends the initial animosity between these two to be endearing, but she makes only a cursory attempt to show what draws them to each other in spite of their mutual animosity.
Even when given the perfect opportunity to delve into character development with flirting and banter as they're forced to sit together on an intercontinental airline flight, Chadha skips straight to the plane's landing 12 hours later and opts instead for a hackneyed musical montage sequence of the couple on a series of set-piece dates.
"Bride and Prejudice" is the kind of musical that doesn't integrate its songs, but stops dead in its tracks for them -- even though they don't advance the story and just reiterate what's already patently obvious. It's the kind of comedy that hinges on miscommunications that could be easily cleared up if the characters would just take 30 seconds to level with one another. And it comes up short as an adaptation as well, reducing most of Austen's witty characters to little more than witless cliches.
The one thing Chadha does do well is infuse the colorful dance numbers with a genuine Bollywood effervescence -- well, at least the ones without dumb lyrics dragging them down.
I'm all for introducing the spirit of Bollywood's better movies to American audiences (see 2002's spectacular, absolutely infectious "Lagaan"), and I'm equally keen on updating Jane Austen stories (see "Clueless" or seek out last year's little-seen but creatively modernized version of "Pride and Prejudice"). But this painfully ill-conceived overproduction isn't the way to win fans to either one.