Kicking, But Not Alive

Bend It Like Beckham is a soccer movie without great soccer.

Sari, folks; nothing new in this feel-good flick

If the second-generation Indians of the United States and Great Britain were suddenly forbidden to make movies about culture clashes and the traumatizing encroachments of modernity and feminism, I don’t know what they’d do—emigrate, maybe. Bend It Like Beckham (Fox Searchlight) is the latest culture-clash feminist Anglo-Indian crowd-pleaser, poised to be a bigger smash here than it was in the U.K. It has been summed up by my colleague A.O. Scott as My Big Fat Sikh Wedding, and it does have a fair amount in common with Nia Vardalos’ ethnic indie blockbuster. But the director, Gurinder Chadha, has the kind of whack-you-over-the-head timing that makes Joel Zwick’s work in Wedding seem airily Lubitsch-like. The movie isn’t unwatchable. It’s clumsily good-natured, the actors are appealing, and there are worse ways to spend two hours than looking at pretty young girls in shorts kicking balls. But the movie is way, way too pleased with itself. When the heroine, Jess (Parminder K. Nagra), announced, “Anyone can do aloo gobi, but who can bend a ball like Beckham?” it occurred to me that I hadn’t had good aloo gobi in ages.

Jess can be forgiven her impatience, I suppose, given that she’s stuck in a house with a lot of raging ethnic stereotypes, chiefly a mother who sees the choices in life reduced to kicking a ball all day or making chapati. Jess dreams of playing soccer (I mean, football) like her hero, the fabled kicker Beckham, whose shaven-headed visage looms over her bed on the slanted wall of her attic room. When I was in England last year, I saw the posters all over the subway (I mean, tube) stations and asked an acquaintance what the title meant. She said that Beckham could put a spin on a soccer ball such that it would curve around the opposing goalie. It would be cool to see that in the movie—to see any good soccer/football in the movie, even. But the practices and matches are all chopped up into loud, confusing, pop-song-overlaid montages. The only thing that gets bent is one’s ear.

Parminder K. Nagra is cute and dryly funny as she goes through her predictable motions, throwing off her sari and sliding into a pair of cleated sneakers. As her coach, that effete ham Jonathan Rhys-Meyers underplays for a change and brings a lingering sweetness to his scenes. And Keira Knightley has the face of Winona Ryder on the long, leggy bod of Jennifer Garner: It’s as if she was cloned to be this year’s übermodel. As Knightley’s grasping, status-oriented mum, the great Juliet Stevenson sticks her cleavage into the camera and does her brilliant best with third-rate material—I’d have appreciated her more if I didn’t feel she was abasing herself.

Chadha is like the Indian Nora Ephron: There isn’t a crisis in Bend It Like Beckham that can’t be overcome with some psychobabble and a hug, and since no one in her heroine’s family ever mounts a credible case for clinging to the old ways, all the central issues just vanish—poof!—in time for the climactic match, which happens to be the same day as Jess’ sister’s ultra-traditional wedding. The only suspenseful issue is whether the girls will jet off to play real soccer (I mean, football) in the United States, where apparently there’s more money for pro soccer (I mean, football) teams but no one knows what the hell bending it like Beckham means.