Ali Larter Goes Bollywood...
I must admit that I’m not sure why Ali Larter isn’t a bigger star. I mean yes, of course, she earned her big cinematic break playing a Varsity Blues bimbo but she made intelligent choices thereafter with the cult teen scarefest Final Destination. And despite a Hollywood absence for a few years to take a break from the sex-kitten characters being offered her way (Allure, 7/08), she’s rebounded much better than other late ’90s starlets who also first portrayed bimbos, such as American Pie’s Shannon Elizabeth. I guess, in retrospect, Larter and her fans should be grateful that she doesn’t have Elizabeth’s primarily straight-to-DVD career but the potential for Larter is undeniable.
Case in point: before her TV series Heroes “jumped the shark,” you couldn’t open a magazine without press covering it with multi-page spreads and articles, yet all the ink spilled seemed to surround the likable, funny Japanese newcomer Masi Oka’s Hiro and Hayden Panettiere’s perky “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World” character. Yet, honestly, while the sunny young Panettiere was used as the face of the show to maximize its youth appeal as the new Buffy, as far as women were concerned on Heroes, it was Larter and not Panettiere who played the best character in season one (before I gave up on it last Fall). As a New Age Film Noir heroine, Larter played a combo of the virgin and the whore dual personality all rolled into one without the cheesy melodrama of a daytime soap and we never knew which side of Larter’s character we’d see next.
And while granted she’s no Meryl Streep, in the film Marigold as well as a recent independent screener called Crazy I was lucky enough to view (currently making the rounds in the film-festival circuit), she gets the chance to show a range that we haven’t seen before and both films involve music. While in the biopic Crazy, she plays the long-suffering wife of a talented guitarist, in writer/director Willard Carroll’s likable sleeper Marigold, Larter takes her biggest risk yet and gets her diva shot at Bollywood glory.
Due to the rightful insistence of casting directors that she’s just not “sympathetic enough,” D-List actress Marigold Lexton (Larter) whose own boyfriend describes her as a “four-star bitch,” has made a career appearing in numerous direct-to-DVD sequels of famous films. After earning a horny fanbase with turns in "Fatal Attraction 3" and "Basic Instinct 3," Marigold’s career has taken such a status dive that as the film opens she boards a twenty-hour flight to Bombay in coach class and bumps along during a hellish twelve-hour cab ride to Goa for her latest gig in Kama Sutra 3.
After screaming at her agents and boyfriend via cell phone the entire way (and clearly loving the chance to play a hammy stereotype as Larter kills even Carroll’s most throwaway lines), eventually her feet touch land in Goa. However, instead of a red carpet, she quickly discovers that due to the shady dealings in the background Sutra’s Indian producers have landed in jail and the German bankers fled to Singapore to avoid a similar fate when financing fell through. Further distraught when her fed-up agent fires her over the telephone and she realizes she was only provided with a one-way ticket to India, the unkind Marigold relies on the kindness of strangers in the Bollywood film community as she tries a way back to the states.
Although instead of a temporary layover, her stay is lengthened the duration of a film shoot, when she’s shocked to discover that while blonde actresses are a dime a dozen in synthetic La La Land, in Goa, her exotic golden-tresses and experience working even in, as Kathy Griffin would call, D-List films, makes her a valuable commodity. Soon, the director is reworking his Bollywood production to feature Marigold in a starring role and although (much like Larter), her character has zero musical or dancing training, her new friends quickly take her under their wing, including the gorgeous and guileless choreographer Prem (Bollywood sensation Salman Khan). A romantic relationship predictably develops but culture clash and prior commitments (both with Marigold’s lackluster relationship back in the states and Prem’s familial obligations) threaten to get in their way.
A true fairy-tale for the film’s duration—tinged with beautiful visuals and featuring seven original songs about the various stages of love (of which only some are successful), Carroll’s Marigold is an earnest and warmly romantic guilty pleasure. And as the director noted on the DVD that it's an “affectionate homage” rather than a parody of the genre, he manages to produce a Bollywood-light film that even the uninitiated will find appealing without immersing themselves fully into the genre. Famous for their multiple-hour running times and sudsy plots that nonetheless engross (like the Academy Award-nominated three-hour “cricket-match musical,” Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India), Bollywood isn’t for everyone. Like sushi, country music, and the comedy of Dane Cook—you’re either a fan or you’re not and oftentimes it’s hard to analyze why.
While ultimately, as far as I’m concerned, I really enjoy the genre, I do grant that I couldn’t watch too many of them in a short time period. In the same token if pressed—genre-wise, I’d say that I wished I could spend one day living life as though it were a frothy French romantic comedy; American musicals would be a close second. With this in mind if you blended together the sweet with the sour of both genres and poured on the soapy melodrama while grating on generous amounts of cheese, you’ll have formulated the ultimate Bollywood musical that it’s fun to get lost in, at least for two hours.
However, while I’m a casual fan, writer/director Willard Carroll is a die-hard Bollywood devotee. The filmmaker, a few years back crafted one of my favorite underrated Altman-esque ensemble pieces, Playing By Heart (which I forced everyone I knew to rent). Afterwards, he found himself fascinated by the genre after only taking in one Bollywood musical--incidentally starring Khan-- when he was in India. When he arrived back in the states, complete with a new obsession, he programmed a one-man international film festival, absorbing, analyzing and viewing an admitted “150-200” films before he set out to begin crafting his own.
And although it will never top Playing By Heart which is still one of my favorite films—ironically Heart is one so synonymous with its cast (including Connery, Jolie, Rowlands etc.) that it wasn’t until after I began researching Marigold, that I even realized the helmer of this one was one and the same. Still, Marigold is affable Saturday afternoon fare for single girls or a lightweight date movie for nights curled up on the couch, sure to find a bigger audience on cable television, as long as-- that is-- Bollywood doesn’t send you running.
Yet unlike Gurinder Chadha’s Jane Austen inspired blend of American musicals and Bollywood fare—Bride and Prejudice—Carroll wanted to pay tribute to what he liked but avoid parroting the genre altogether in what could have been an unsuccessful satire. Couple this with the fact that—as he reveals on the DVD—Ali Larter was living in his guest home and suddenly one day while observing her doing laundry, he realized he had his very own remarkable leading lady to get the job done. And likewise, he gave her a chance as a friend and supportive professional that most in the industry wouldn’t have, as he says, believing in her even more than the actress does herself.
While unfortunately it's a bit skimpy on DVD extras, the studio more than makes up for it with a fascinating behind-the-scenes thirty-minute making-of featurette on the Marigold DVD, taking film lovers further into the cinematic process of such a visually stunning work. And although therein he admits that although the process of the two stars couldn’t have been more different with Larter’s cerebral questioning and longing for rehearsal and the veteran Khan who has the ability after the bare minimum of run-throughs to just complete a complicated number flawlessly, soon they inevitably clicked. And in doing so, much like the film itself—thereby managing to meld the west and east together in a very harmlessly yet unexpectedly entertaining way.