Director: Dan Baron
Cast: Brie Larson, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Saahil Sehgal, Donald Sutherland, Scott Bakula, Tyne Daly
Running Time: 1:46
Release Date: 2/9/18 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 8, 2018
Basmati Blues is about the strained, unlikely romance between an American scientist, who has developed a genetically modified strain of rice, and an Indian science student, who has had to drop out of college because he can't afford the tuition. By the way, it's a musical, too, which means that the characters often sing in scientific terms. As you might imagine, this is a particularly nerdy movie. Co-writer/director Dan Baron doesn't try to hide that fact. He embraces the concept so much that one might see the movie's clunky story, its forced humor, its awkward editing rhythms, and its garish visuals as intentional parts of the movie's attempted charm.
Such a thought is, perhaps, pushing it—giving the movie more credit than it might be due. Such, though, is the overtly nerdish charm of the first act of Baron and Jeff Dorchen's screenplay, which features Brie Larson's adorably enthusiastic Linda singing in and dancing around the makeshift lab in her apartment, before wandering out to the sidewalks of New York City to have a larger stage for a musical number. Musicals are a unique and difficult thing to pull off in the movies, because they possess a particular brand of logic. We have to buy into the concept that a character will break into song to express something that mere words cannot.
Say what you will about Baron's clumsy way of cutting the musical numbers without taking into account the songs' rhythm or meaning, but Larson's performance certainly sells the idea that this character, who has lived her life in relative isolation and in complete devotion to scientific pursuits, would start singing about science for no particular reason. It's an idea so corny and so nerdy that it seems, well, right for this character. After all, it's not every scientist who reserves a space in her cramped New York apartment for microscopes and test tubes.
Larson is, undoubtedly, the best thing about the movie, which places her character in the uncomfortable position of saving all of India from centuries upon centuries of farming tradition, only to have her save the same country from the corporate malfeasance that she, in part, has created. The story revolves around a strain of seed called Rice 9, which she developed with her scientist father Eric (Scott Bakula) in the lab of the agricultural conglomerate Mogil (subtle name, that). The company's representative to India caused a bit of a drunken, adulterous scandal while he was there, so Mogil's CEO Gurgon (Donald Sutherland) wants to a send a fresh face to India to sell the benefits of Rice 9. Who could be better than the fresh-faced, passionate Linda?
There, she meets two men: Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar), the science student who has returned to his family's farming enterprise, and William (Saahil Sehgal), a representative from the country's Ministry of Culture. William is assigned to ensure that Linda's sales pitch goes well, and Rajit believes that there's a more natural solution to the country's current agricultural problems. Both of the men quickly develop a thing for Linda, although only she and Rajit can bond over their admiration of weeds (When Rajit tells her that he wants to incorporate a kind of stinkweed to ward off a beetle infestation, Linda informs him that it's her "fifth favorite weed").
From here, the story goes off on at least three different tangents. There's the romance between Linda and Rajit—two people who have so much in common that it's a shame that their philosophies on solving the rice-farming problems are so different. There's William's attempt to woo Linda so that he can have a pretty, American woman to parade around various social functions. There's a competition between the two scientists to see whose plan is more attractive to the local farmers, and there's the complication that Linda isn't aware of such a competition. There's William, falling for Gurgon and his business partner Evelyn's (Tyne Daly) musical number about the virtues of trickle-down economics. That number is a hoot in theory, but in practice, with its lackadaisical staging, it's a bit embarrassing.
That's a good summation of the entire movie: enjoyable in theory and awkward in practice. It's clearly an homage to Bollywood musicals, although the movie's focus on Linda learning about Indian culture means that it's hesitant to fully embrace that culture. The movie wants us to admire Linda's passion, but the story often turns her into an overly naďve outsider, who falls for Rajit's goof about a traditional Indian greeting and can't understand how Rice 9, which has seeds that can't be replanted, will destroy the local farming economy.
The songs of Basmati Blues, based on a few generic pop formulas, are entertaining enough, but save for one or two of them, Baron's staging and editing of the musical sequences doesn't generate the energy required to pull off such flights of fancy. That's the last thing a musical should fail to do.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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