Gurinder Chadha’s third feature is a “Rockette” movie–a cross-gender version of the “Rocky” formula. But making the protagonist a young girl isn’t all her only alteration of the Stallone recipe. The sport isn’t boxing, it’s soccer. And the heroine is a tomboyish Anglo-Indian kid whose traditionalist parents are steadfastly opposed to her efforts on the field. (Her older sister Pinky’s impending marriage is even threatened by her athletic involvements: part of the picture, in fact, could be called “My Big Fat Indian Wedding.”) What results is a laboriously manufactured sitcom that strings together a small army of cliches and stereotypes in its determination to become a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. It goes for the easy laughs and tugs at the heart all too insistently, but the same audiences that ate up Nia Vardalos’ flick will probably enjoy this earlier-age cousin, too.
The center of “Bend It Like Beckham” is Jess Bhamra (personable Parminder Nagra), a soccer-loving teen whose overbearing mother (screeching Shaheen Khan) demands that she conform to the submissive Indian model and whose more understanding father (deadpan Anupam Kher), haunted by the ostracism he once suffered at the hands of English players, regularly goes along with her. Despite their insistence that she give up her devotion to the game, however, Jess not only continues to insert herself into the matches her guy friends play in the park, but accepts an invitation from blonde classmate Jules (svelte Keira Knightley) to join an official girls’ team–something she’ll have to hide from mom and dad, of course–which entails lots of slapstick running around and fibbing. From this point the script adds level after level of contrivance. Jess and Jules are both swept off their feet by their lanky, boyishly handsome coach Joe (a nicely laid- back Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an Irish lad who commiserates with Jess about her parent problems. (Joe’s given a sad back story, too–involving not only an estranged father but a knee injury that ended his once-promising career.) Jules’s high-strung mom (overwrought Juliet Stevenson), desperate to understand her sports fixation, persuades herself that her daughter and Jess are romantically involved–a misunderstanding with lots of predictable comic complications. (As if to compensate for this plot thread involving anti-gay attitudes, Jess is also given a closeted pal who’s utterly devoted to helping her fulfill her dreams.) And then there’s the whole subplot involving the prospective marriage of Pinky (Archie Panjabi), which allows for liberal doses of the Indian color that’s currently fashionable on screen. Could you possibly guess that everything winds up when the nuptials are scheduled at precisely the same time as a crucial game? Needless to say, all ends not only happily but extravagantly so, as a supposed American love affair with women’s soccer intervenes to give both Jules and Jim (sorry, Jess) a chance for recognition and success.
There’s a by-the-numbers feel to the intricate but utterly formulaic script that accentuates the feeling that the viewer is being had. What keeps things from missing the goal entirely–as so many soccer movies have done in the past–is the likable young cast. Nagra makes Jess sympathetic even at the most unlikely moments, and by refusing to come on too strong Rhys Meyers turns Joe into a singularly appealing guy. Knightley, unfortunately, gives a stiffer, less refined performance, and as so often happens in such flicks, the older generation is portrayed much more broadly, with more than a hint of clumsy stereotyping. Technically the picture is at best mediocre, but the soundtrack gives it some energy. The final credits are punctuated by behind-the-scenes shots of cast and crew having what appears to be a great time during the shoot. A pity that the more discriminating members of the audience won’t be able to share their rapturous joy.
For the record, the title refers to a kind of soccer kick that curves the ball into the net past the goalie, and David Beckham is a top English player–the sport’s answer to Michael Jordan, you might say. Translation complete.