It’s no surprise that “Bend It Like Beckham” is coming to American theaters sometime later this year after a successful run in its native England. It’s one of those “feel good” hits that will pull in the same crowd that gave repeat business to the surprise hit of 2002, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Like “Wedding”, “Beckham” is about an eccentric ethnic family (at least “ethnic” according to the majority of Americans and Britains) that refuses and fights back when their daughter tries to break rank and “do her own thing.”
The ethnicity here is Indian (as in India), and the heroine is young Jessie (Parminder K. Nagra), a tomboy with a natural gift for soccer (aka football). “Beckham” is a lighthearted comedy with no real serious overtones, so it comes as no surprise that Jessie will eventually sell her passion for soccer to her parents who, despite all of their non-acceptance up to this point, will throw up their hands and give in. This is Light Fluff Entertainment designed to make you feel good and come out of the theaters smiling like a fool.
“Bend It Like Beckham” does all of the above and not very much else. Star Parminder Nagra is believable as the athletic tomboy whose bedroom is plastered with posters of British soccer star Beckham (hence the title). Like all sports-minded teen, Jessie dreams of playing “the big game” with her hero and coming out as the hero herself. She gets the chance to play soccer with an all-girls’ team when the very Caucasian Jules (Keira Knightley) spots her playing in the park. After an audition, Jessie joins Jules and handsome coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who she promptly falls for and vice versa.
Co-written and directed by Gurinder Chadha (who appears in the final credits), the film is obviously very in tune with the Indian community. It’s not hard to believe that Chadha grew up with these same rules and stubbornness, much like Nia Vardalos, the writer and star of “Greek Wedding”, did when she penned that comedy. And like Vardalos’ Greek family, Chadha’s Indian family is obviously over exaggerated to highlight the comedy. The two films are so similar, in fact, that just like Vardalos, Chadha isn’t really damning her Indian family, but is really celebrating them in all their colorful glory and dysfunction.
But there are some problems with the film. Halfway through the movie we get a silly subplot about Jessie and the Natalie Portman lookalike Jules both expressing their affections for Joe, which causes a divide between the best friends. This is an unnecessary subplot that hinders the movie rather than adds anything to it. Actually, the whole Joe/Jessie angle could have been gotten rid of completely. Besides adding at least 20 ill-advised minutes to “Beckham”, the two ideas kill the comedy vibe of the film the same way road bumpers kill a pleasant Sunday drive. It also doesn’t help that Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ Joe comes across as mostly just dull.
Much of the focus is on Indian family life, as it should be. Besides Jessie, there’s her sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi), who is in constant turmoil as her wedding day nears. The film uses Pinky’s impending marriage as a center, with Jessie’s quest for soccer stardom fitting in around it. Anupam Kher plays Jessie’s father, and although the screenplay gives him a background relating to soccer, it was also unnecessary. The fact that he’s her father and doesn’t want her to suffer from failure is enough.
If there is one big problem with “Beckham” it’s that the screenplay offers too much when it should be spending its time focusing on the comedy and Jessie’s soccer. As a result, the supposedly pivotal “big game” where American scouts are supposed to gauge Jessie and Jules’ talent for drafting is too downplayed. Not only do we not know who the heck they’re playing, it’s unbelievable that the performances put on by both girls would have impressed anyone, much less a scout that flew all the way across the Atlantic just to see them. As a viewer, I didn’t “get” why anyone would be interested in them from this particular performance. The whole sequence was that poorly executed.
Not happy with already jamming “Beckham” with throwaway plotlines, the film also adds a ridiculous side story about how Jules’ unbelievably dense mom thinks Jules is a lesbian, and that Jessie is her lover. What was the point of this again? Actually, there is no point, so don’t bother trying to figure it out. If this proves anything, it’s that the film would have benefited greatly from extra trimming for better pace and more focus. The rest are better left for the DVD’s “deleted scenes” section.
“Bend it like Beckham” works as a comedy, but filmmaker Gurinder Chadha fails to see that she has nothing beyond a lighthearted comedy about clashing cultures. Why try to make this a “Monsoon Wedding” (a terrific Indian drama that’s also about a wedding) when it doesn’t have the heart to be one? Take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes of extraneous footage out of “Beckham” and the film has the makings of a hilarious comedy. Right now, it’s just amusing and 15 minutes too long for its own good.
Gurinder Chadha (director) / Gurinder Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges, Guljit Bindra (screenplay)
CAST: Parminder K. Nagra …. Jessie Bhamra
Keira Knightley …. Juliette ‘Jules’ Paxton
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers …. Joe