‘West Is West’ is a promising dramedy that quickly goes astray
Directed by Andy DeEmmony
Written by Ayub Khan-Din
Nothing’s more frustrating than squandered potential. For every lackluster movie that feels hobbled from the start by a flawed premise or awkward miscasting, there’s a film that seems to understand the ingredients necessary for good storytelling, only to get the proportions horribly wrong. The latter is the clear case for West Is West, an at-first promising dramedy that quickly goes astray.
Set four years after the events of its predecessor, 1999’s East Is East, West opens in 1975 Manchester, where the British-Pakistani Khan clan are still working through the difficulties of their mixed racial heritage in a frequently less-than-tolerant social climate. Iron-willed but ethically shaky patriarch George (Om Puri) is increasingly distressed by the rebellious behavior of his youngest son, Sajid (newcomer Aqib Khan), whose constant racially-driven bullying at school leads to his calling out his father as a “paki” in their own home. Resolving to straighten his son out, George travels back to his home country with Sajid in tow (leaving behind the astonishingly faithful Ella, played with wasted restraint by Linda Bassett) in order to impart a sense of respect for his origins. Once there, George finds himself facing an identity crisis of his own, as he is reunited with the family he left behind (headed up by the understandably displeased matriarch Basheera, played by Ila Arun) three decades earlier in order to make a new life for himself in the UK.
West evokes issues of personal responsibility, guilt, shame and betrayal that its wacky coming-of-age trappings are woefully ill-equipped to handle. Both Khan and Puri are strong, and could easily have carried another, better movie that did justice to the witty, pained one promised in the opening 15 minutes. The dumbed-down film returning screenwriter Khan Din is content to settle into is ushered in with an intertitle helpfully informing us that we’ve arrived in Pakistan – a fact clearly explained roughly a dozen times earlier. Arun so effectively conjures Basheera’s decades-simmering resentment and loss that it’s shocking when West opts for puerile gags, grinning stereotypes (particularly Sajid’s “crazy-but-brilliant” mentor and Lesley Nicol’s Annie, who winds up as Ella’s wacky, diarrhetic sidekick) and, most frequently, easy shortcuts to tidy matrimonial resolution – especially dubious given that the bulk of the film’s conflict arises from the difficulties presented by marriage culture.
The film’s absurdly simple mentality is best summed up in a deeply misguided late sequence, in which Mrs. Khans #1 and 2 share a heart-to-heart without sharing a language. It’s meant to be a deeply tender moment, but it comes off as laughable and insultingly implausible instead. Basheera’s grievances are legitimate and heartbreaking, and no amount of hollow speechifying and lowbrow humor can account for the way we’re meant to accept her ultimately passive response to life’s indignities – only one of the ways in which West is West‘s formulaic approach fails the promise of its material.
– Simon Howell