All of a sudden it’s the year of the Muslim romantic comedy. Hot on the heels of The Big Sick comes its Australian counterpart, Ali’s Wedding, which despite lacking the sharp wit of Kumail Nanjiani film, presses all the right buttons to assure its place as a homegrown crowd pleaser.
The comparisons to The Big Sick are obvious. Both are autobiographical romantic comedies written by the film’s star. In both cases a young Muslim man has a hard time railing against cultural traditions and the plans of his parents. Both are cornered into an arranged marriage but have fallen in love with someone else, keeping both the family and the girlfriend in the dark about the conflict.
In the case of Ali’s Wedding, the writer/star is Osamah Sami, the son of an Iraqi born cleric, Mahdi (Don Hany) and is under pressure from his family and community to become a doctor. So much so that he lies about his entrance exam results and extends the lie by attending university even though he’s not enrolled.
The pressure is intensified by the fact that Ali’s older brother, the real brains of the family, was killed by a landmine just before the family fled Iraq. Ali feels he is a poor proxy for his brother and not cut out to fulfill the wishes of his father.
Despite the intense competitiveness in the form of classmate Moe (Khaled Khalafalla), the real academic hero is Diane (Helana Sawires) who has the highest grades of them all. This, however, being a male-centric culture means her achievements count for little.
She, naturally, is also Ali’s love interest. Having been born in Australia (albeit to an Egyptian/Lebanese family) discounts her from being an appropriate wife for Ali and instead his family select a bride with no input requested from the groom himself.
There’s no doubt that Sami’s true-life story is an entertaining one, it’s the stuff of tried and true feel-good romcoms, and the filmmakers have their hearts in the right place. In addition to the character of Diane being a strong, smart and dignified young woman, we also see how Ali’s younger sister struggles with the inequalities of growing up in a patriarchal community.
For all its good intentions though, the film is stymied by Jeffrey Walker’s direction, which often fails to hit the right note. Flashbacks to traumatic events sit uncomfortably with the comedy of the present, which itself is often played too broadly.
The best moments occur when the drama is allowed to own the scene completely. Sawires and Sami are both very appealing and their attraction to each other is convincing. Rodney Afif, who was so good in Lucky Miles, is a standout as the father of the bride to be, but some of the other performances are on the overripe side. Despite being of Iraqi descent, Hany’s accent sometimes sticks out like a sore thumb. Nigel Westlake’s score too, lays it on a bit thick at times.
The film’s shortcomings are a real shame, because the story is a good one and it’s so encouraging to see multicultural Australia on the big screen. It’s particularly commendable that the film’s dialogue often slips into Persian and Arabic, as reflects the character’s origins.
This may not be sophisticated filmmaking, but Ali’s Wedding clearly has all the right ingredients to connect with local cinema goers. Recently it was runner up in the Melbourne International Film Festival audience poll for best film. The time certainly feels right for Australian’s to embrace its very own Muslim romcom.
Ali’s Wedding is currently in national release
Richard Leathem @dickiegee