**½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras A-
starring Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Anupam Kher
screenplay by Gurinder Chadha, Guljit Bindra, Paul Mayeda Berges
directed by Gurinder Chadha
by Walter Chaw This year's British-import-pre-sold-as-a-hit Bend It Like Beckham coasts on its similitude to John Badham's magnificent Saturday Night Fever, but when all a picture is doing is reminding you of a better one without embarrassing itself, it can hardly be called a triumph. I'm surprised that more critics haven't picked up on the film's debt to Saturday Night Fever, actually, which extends to the set design and placement of key props. It's this kind of popular coding that has, I suspect, buoyed Bend It Like Beckham aloft the market doldrums of other mainstream-pitched East-meets-West comedies (East Is East, Bollywood/Hollywood): the subliminal affiliation of one ethnicity (orthodox Sikh) with another (Italian-Americans) that was long ago embraced by the masses.
The good news is, the material corresponds somewhat organically to Saturday Night Fever--this isn't a wannabe from the school of Tarantino's minions. Jesminder "Jess" Bhamra (Parminder K. Nagra) is in her element playing soccer, and her bedroom wall is a shrine to the superstar "footballer" of the UK, Dave Beckham. Tony Manero's Al Pacino posters served much the same function (mementos of fully-realized hopes and dreams), and as with John Travolta's disco prodigy Manero, Jess's talent has the veneration of her close-knit community. Enter Juliette "Jules" Paxton (Keira Knightley, the dictionary opposite of "ugly"), who eyes Jess playing "footy" in a park and invites her to try out for the local girl's team. The two bond personally and professionally over family problems and a common worship of Beckham, and when director/co-writer Gurinder Chadha starts maximizing the various triangles to keep the film's momentum going, they even fall for the same guy--their coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).
From the beginning, the Sikh religion is positioned as the antagonist. Jess is thwarted at every turn by some new gender intolerance embedded within centuries of tradition, and while I can't in good conscience endorse any culture that slaps a leash on its women, one wonders whether Bend It Like Beckham would've been such a flagrant button-pusher with a man at the helm; Chadha does everything short of having Jess's father (Anupam Kher) sensory-deprive her in a pit à la Frailty. Consequently, there's less a sense of custom than of cruelty: the inevitable triumph of Western values doesn't play as an ethical one or even a human one, but rather the victory of a pouting princess. When Jess is entering a platonic embrace with Joe and Papa Bhamra is rounding the corner about to catch her, we shouldn't be worried for our heroine, we should be second-guessing such proto-sitcom trappings, which flout patriarchy without critiquing it.
There is also a dubious amount of homophobia from Jules's parents--fear for their daughter's sexual orientation. Dubious because Jules is not gay, thus transforming the very notion of lesbianism into a joke. You have to wonder how, "Phew, for a second there I thought you were East Indian" would go over with Chadha. Nevertheless, Chadha has a wonderful command of both comedy (Jules's mother (the normally dramatic actress Juliet Stevenson) walks off with the funniest line in the picture in criticizing her daughter's athletic garb: "All I'm saying is why do you think Sporty Spice is the only one without a fella?") and imagery, her lovely use of planes a multi-purpose metaphor that suggests a world of shrinking cultural gaps while foreshadowing the film's satisfying conclusion. Chadha may be manipulative, but that she's successful at it is as much indicative of talent--and in Nagra, Knightley, and Rhys-Meyers, she's found three leads with enough sex appeal to spice up the picture's triteness.
Bend It Like Beckham arrives on DVD from Fox at the tail end of its North American theatrical run. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (fullscreen sold separately) is crisp and brilliant, if prone to too much saturation and contrast. (The effect is that some scenes look prematurely aged.) The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix has more impact than one anticipates, the soccer matches bestowed with subwoofer heft; an animated opening kick-off sends a ball in a 360-degree motion around the discrete soundstage, while the dance club passages nail "the throb." Chadha and co-screenwriter Paul Mayeda Berges offer a wry, low-key feature-length commentary with some fairly interesting/entertaining recollections, including the thinking behind the somewhat ballsy use of a corporeal David Beckham in the epilogue, the unblinking national reaction to the Sikh rituals depicted in the film, and Chadha's desire to exploit her male cast members by getting their shirts off as often as possible.
Chadha also appears in a 15-minute DVD first: a cooking segment! To the heckles of her aunt and mother, Chadha (whose previous film was What's Cooking?) prepares a serving of Aloo Gobi (full recipe printed elsewhere on the platter). Aiming only to please her mother, Chadha receives an indifferent "It's nice" for her dish, lending this delightful piece ("Who Wants to Cook Aloo Gobi?") bizarre poignancy. Though the Brit-produced "She Shoots, She Scores: The Making of Bend It Like Beckham" (15 mins. and, like the previous featurette, in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen) overstates the significance of the picture's estrogen count (as well as the execution of its blink-and-you'll-miss-it German sequence), there is a mite more substance here than what you'd find in the American equivalent, even just in the underscoring of clips with Delibes's "Viens Mallika... Dôme épais le jasmin."
Ten deleted scenes (totalling 15 minutes) obviously transferred from a PAL source flesh out tensions in the Bhamra household and provide unwatchable unedited takes of a brawl over a video camera and a Bollywood-ish wedding number. A "music video" that slaps outtakes together (the final being Victoria and Dave Beckham singing a decidedly unpolished rendition of "Hot Hot Hot"--if ever there was proof that The Spice Girls' lip-synched to machine-tooled music, this is it), two international trailers for Bend It Like Beckham, a Bend It Like Beckham soundtrack spot, and the trailer for Antwone Fisher round out the disc. Originally published: August 27, 2003.