Film Review: Basmati Blues

Cross-cultural musical romantic comedy stirs together some pleasing ingredients but falls short of its expansive ambitions.
Specialty Releases

Stocked full of choppily edited montages suggesting one or two aborted storylines, the Hollywood-meets-Bollywood musical Basmati Blues registers as someone’s sincere attempt to salvage a sunken ship. The rescue effort would seem worth the while for what appears to have been a significant investment in time and talent, and there is some treasure here, in a passel of swell tunes and Oscar-winner Brie Larson giving musical comedy a spin.

But the film stumbles, from its unpersuasive Manhattan-set opening number—the get-out-there anthem “Rise and Breathe Again,” with Larson lip-syncing to vocals by another actress—to its final, full-cast Bollywood-style closer, croaked out by Scott Bakula.

Along the way, Larson and co-star Utkarsh Ambudkar fare well enough with the romantic comedy, and with singing their own vocals. Yet, neither they nor anyone else—not even Tony-winner Tyne Daly, in a throwaway henchwoman role—fares especially well performing the clunky choreography in director Dan Baron’s ill-conceived, Busby Berkeley-lite musical sequences.

Frankly, the musical numbers look a mess, but the story bears some intrigue as a focused look at the rarely explored world of rice farming, a major industrial enterprise given the billions of consumers who consider the food a staple. Bakula and Larson are Drs. Eric and Linda Watt, father and daughter scientists in the labs of corporate giant Mogil, run by greedy villain Gurgon, played by Donald Sutherland, who doesn’t get into any mustache-twirling but instead brandishes eyebrows of evil.

When the Watts develop a genetically enhanced rice seed that produces greater yields per acre, Gurgon dispatches wide-eyed Linda to Bilari, India to launch the revolutionary new product, dubbed Rice-9, in the so-called “hallowed cradle of Basmati rice.” There, she butts heads with local farmer Rajit (Ambudkar), a university student on a forced sabbatical from school due to his finances. The two meet-cute on a train, then spar and swoon through several poorly shot, badly danced song-and-dance sequences, set to nevertheless enjoyable songs.

Larson’s Linda is a sweet but spicy heroine, bold and direct. Opposite a game sparring partner in Ambudkar, the future Captain Marvel deploys all the quizzical double-takes and chin-up pluck of many a screwball comedienne who’s come before her. But that pep’s mostly missing from Larson’s musical numbers, which feel, more often than not, listless and undersold, qualities that also apply to the film overall.

Throughout this tuner, a fairly formulaic comic tale of culture-vs.-corporate greed, the execution lacks certainty, especially in the always-difficult transitions from walking and talking to singing and dancing. Out of nowhere, Linda might take to the street with her guitar, as in “Love Don’t Knock at My Door,” a not-bad love song, set to an under-lit montage that combines Linda singing in somebody’s treehouse and Rajit dueting longingly from afar before a starlit sky. The net effect is less transporting than confused.

Despite the best efforts of five credited editors, these sequences don’t achieve the style or grace of great musical cinema, or even music-videos, although some of the songs are strong enough to make one believe this B-movie curio could have been so much better. But then, there are flat-out horrible sequences like Sutherland and Daly’s archetypal villain’s number, “The Greater Good,” that make it clear that no amount of editing magic could have yielded from these bad seeds anything more palatable.

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