September 8, 2010

Americanizing Shelley. Starring Namrata Singh Gujral, Beau Bridges, Brad Raider, RonReaco Lee, Phillip Rhys, Wil Wheaton, Erin Hershey, Shaheen Khan, Ajay Mehta, Noureen DeWulf, Tony Yalda, Morgan Brittany, and Robert M. Rey. Music by Jay Ferguson. Cinematography by Christo Bakalov, B.A.C. Production design by Kathryn Evans. Costume design by Barbara Anderson, Pooja Gujral, and Jaymee Mandeville. Edited by Christopher Roth. Written by Namrata Singh Gujral.

Directed by Lorraine Senna.(Warner Bros./Polychrome Pictures/American Pride Films Group, 2007, color, 90 minutes, in English, and Punjabi with subtitles). MPAA rating: PG.)

May 2008 -- I’m not supposed to like Americanizing Shelley, at least not according to the unwritten code of my profession. It doesn’t affect a sneering tone. In fact, it’s so sweet that it verges on sappy. It’s also a popcorn flick that may be great to take a date to, but most guys will probably be looking at their watches (read: “chick flick”). It’s also quite formulaic. The formula is so hoary, in fact, that it’s borrowed from a Cypriot myth almost two thousand years old, about a forlorn artist named Pygmalion who sculpts a statue of a woman so lifelike that he falls in love with it.

Still, I was enchanted. Perhaps it was the timing. That bath I said I needed after wandering the dark barrens of There Will Be Blood? Well, Americanizing Shelley was like an invigorating shower, and I was able to cleanse myself of those ugly emotions after watching this endearing romantic comedy.

The Pygmalion myth of remaking a woman over according to the idealized image of her male designer has resurfaced constantly in popular culture—often through tragedies, such as Hitchcock’s suspense masterpiece Vertigo and Andrew Nichol’s underrated cautionary film S1m0ne. Most famously, it’s been identified with dramatist George Bernard Shaw’s Edwardian comedy of manners Pygmalion, which was reworked as the Lerner and Loewe musical comedy My Fair Lady. In its lighthearted treatment of the ancient tale, though, this movie comes closer to the 1983 British flick Educating Rita.

Shalini Singh has waited her whole life to leave her Himalayan village in India and travel to America—or, as she calls it, “the Land of the White People.” To the consternation of her mother (Shaheen Khan), she’s closing in on thirty and still unmarried. Not to worry, however: Shalini just graduated from “the University of Cooking and Cleaning” and is set to present herself to Neil (Phillip Rhys), to whom she was betrothed since childhood. Neil has become a successful Hollywood talent agent, and Shalini is worked up into a lather because soon “I’ll be married to the man of my family’s dreams!”

However, Neil has become a success not only in the boardroom but on the casting couch as well. One day, after trekking halfway across the world to meet him, Shalini shows up in his office wearing a sari and holding parcels, her face hidden behind untamed hair and oversized glasses. But when she proudly presents herself to her fiancé, he blows her off. “You cook and speak English? Great, I’ll hire you as a maid.”

Stunned, Shalini leaves his office and starts trudging down the sidewalk. There she runs across Rob (Brad Raider), Neil’s hapless assistant, who’s trying to make a name for himself at the agency. Rob has his own problems: His girlfriend was just stolen by Neil on her climb up the ladder of fame and fortune.

Shalini sees her own inadequacy in competing with the hotties that are more to Neil’s liking. So she strikes a deal with Rob: “Americanize” her into becoming a Hollywood celebrity so that Neil will fall in love with and marry her.

In a sequence of events familiar to fans of “fish out of water” movies like Pretty Woman and Legally Blonde, Shalini stumbles slowly forward as she strives to become both “cool” and “hot.” Rob suggests changing her name to the more Latina-sounding “Shelley Picante,” and with the help of Army friend Blaine (RonReaco Lee), she works out in a “boot camp” montage to get the killer body she thinks she needs.

Moreover, as she leaves the cultural ties that bind her to India, “Shelley” becomes an American in the larger sense. At a kicker bar, she ditches taboos about women drinking alcohol. “That’s what I like about your culture,” she tells her new friends as she orders another round of beers. “I can do something because I want to, not because I have to.” Of course, when she arrives home, drives the porcelain bus, and then wakes up with a hangover, she learns that exercising free will does not necessarily entail wisdom.

Although some of the movie’s humor missed its mark, a scene at a cocktail soiree, where Rob advises her to just wing it, makes for some dead-on satire. Afraid to insult “somebody who might be somebody,” the Beautiful People at the party all feign acquaintance with Shelley and her work, and before you know it, she’s in like Flynn.

After her makeover is complete, and having become “Americanized” only in the most superficial sense, Shelley is shocked to discover that Neil wants her to lower herself in order to generate more publicity in the scandal sheets, thus boosting her celebrity status.  But, as her family pressures Shelley to set a wedding date with Neil, will she come to see him for the two-timing cad he really is?

This picture has a distinctly Eighties feel to it, accentuated by composer Jay Ferguson’s soundtrack, which somewhat echoes The Wedding Singer. More importantly, the movie captures the optimism of that decade through colorful, Bollywood-style dance sequences. Namrata Singh Gujral portrays the benign immigrant heroine with compassion, conviction, and a charming effervescence. Phillip Rhys is deliciously ruthless and shallow as Neil. The only weak link, I thought, was Brad Raider as Rob. I experienced a fair amount of cognitive dissonance in his portraying a nice guy who is simultaneously a shrewd publicist. His acting was too lukewarm to make plausible either his ambition or his benevolent ability to transform Shalini into Shelley. Though he comes across more credibly as he grows accustomed to her face, Rex Harrison he ain’t.

Still, this was a fun and entertaining watch. Americanizing Shelley is a formulaic movie that’s nonetheless wise beyond its plot. Shelley comes face to face with the American Dream in its truest sense: measured not in terms of fame and riches, but in the independence gained by maintaining one’s integrity and standing on one’s own two feet, succeeding or failing by the choices one makes.