Polite Society is a little bit too polite
Entranced by the advertising, the wary consumer approaches Polite Society on tiptoes, half expecting a ruse yet somehow emboldened, against all reason, by an inkling that this particular summer-access bauble, with its promised gaudy/gorgeous spectacle of energetic young women on the prowl in exotic wardrobe, won’t turn out to be as disappointing as it has every inclination to be.
So much for judging a movie by its trailer.
As director Nida Manzoor’s scenario would have it, an anxious teenage girl from a conservative immigrant family goes on a chuckle-filled campaign to prevent her older sister from marrying a young man who the teenager feels is unworthy, and makes such a fool of herself that she’s endearing. In a goofy, gushing, adolescent way that’s nonetheless admirable.
Sounds quite a bit like a Jane Austen story line, but let that pass with a warning (although Manzoor’s screenplay clearly calls it out in dialogue). Yes, we’ve seen this situation before, countless times, from every angle, going back into previous centuries of film history. But we’ll assume the intended audience isn’t particularly aware of the plot whiskers, so no harm done.
High school student Ria (played by 26-year-old Priya Kansara) is cute in an honestly earned, multi-cultural way. She aspires to be a martial arts stunt performer, even though her moves need some work. Her girlfriends, also residents of the West London district of Shepherd’s Bush (hometown of The Who), follow her faithfully, no matter how silly her schemes are.
Her sister Lena (Ritu Arya), somewhat easily led, has hastily agreed to become the bride of a rich mama’s boy named Salim (Akshay Khanna), leaving the willful Ria aghast. There’s something fishy about Salim and his devotion to his vulpine, controlling mother (Nimra Bucha). The two sisters’ Pakistani immigrant parents, however, are predictably oblivious. They’re eager to move up in class.
So it’s up to Ria to set matters straight, and indulgent scenes of comic misadventure occur. All the while, some audience members are secretly hoping that a little of that Everything Everywhere All at Once joyous fizziness will assert itself—to name a shining example from the Asian crossover coming-of-age file. Something to take the show out of the after-school-special category. Something we’re not used to.
It’s not certain that filmmaker Manzoor—a writer on the intriguingly named TV series We Are Lady Parts—is ready to go off the beaten path with this one. In the movie’s press notes, Manzoor claims she was inspired by Jackie Chan, Kill Bill, The Matrix and the Harry Potter films in charting Ria’s moves. But aside from a very few stylistic digressions, there’s little evidence of anything that transcends standard multiplex-matinee perimeters.
The (decidedly non-graphic) forced-pubic-depilatory scene is about as kinky as it gets. Most of Ria’s stunts involve dressing up in ridiculous disguises and doing pratfalls. The movie takes a while to warm to the gleeful absurdity of its situations—although the Bollywood-style production number, with its brilliantly colorful outfits and choreography, shows off the characters’ manic energy, a bit too late in the game.
There’s too much extraneous business in the run-up to the climactic cat fight. By the time Ria goes into her Jason Statham punch-’em-out routine in the last reel, the movie has shown every one of its tricks at least once.
At 103 minutes, Polite Society is about 20 minutes too long. Even without the padding, though, there’s still something arguably worth seeing in the performances, especially actor Bucha’s hyperventilating turn as Salim’s mother, the Cruella de Vil replacement, who pops out of the scenery at regular intervals—something about a secret lab and a hideous experiment. Kansara’s Ria and Arya’s Lena fill out their parts ably, but the roles are really nothing to shout about.
The movie has quite a few chances to appeal to a viewer older than age 12, but misses almost every one of them. Pass the punch.