‘Ali’s Wedding’ Review

The romantic comedy continues to evolve with Ali’s Wedding.

I think there must be something wrong with me. Osamah Sami’s autobiographical romantic comedy Ali’s Wedding has audiences and critics cheering and reaching for the tissues to wipe away both sad and happy tears, but I’m just not getting it. That isn’t to say it’s a bad film – there’s plenty to love in this upbeat and sincerely felt take on the complexities of cross-cultural relationships. My issue is with its lead character, Ali, and whether or not his story is the one that really deserves to be told.

Playing the lead role and having co-written the script with Andrew Knight (Hacksaw Ridge), Sali has given a great deal of himself to the project. A gifted musician, Ali comes to Australia from Iraq with his family to study medicine. His whole family, especially his father Mahdi (Don Hany), are confident he will ace the exam and begin practicing medicine. Ali’s queasy looks and uncomfortable disposition show he’s not so sure.

Director Jeffrey Walker, a young talent with his roots in TV directing, delivers most of the early autobiographical stuff in a quick, comical montage that feels a little like he’s getting it out of the way as quickly as he can. We soon learn that Ali works nightly in a servo where he attempts to charm the stoic Dianne (Helana Sawires), a Lebanese woman who works at a fish and chip shop with her father. Dianne’s taking the exam too, even though she knows her father would never approve of her studying medicine.

Playing Ali’s father and a highly respected member of the Muslim community, Hany does a great job portraying a kind giver of advice who deeply loves his family, yet commands respect and adheres to traditional values. He demonstrates this in a scene in which a man comes to Mahdi in distress, having said to his wife ‘Talaq’ three times, which legally constitutes a divorce. He wants to take it back, so Mahdi reminds him that saying it three times in a row means he really only thought about it once, not three times, proving he still has two times left to say it.

This is where Sami and Knight’s screenplay really shines. It delves into the religion with a critical eye and an insider’s perspective, committing entirely to neither a critical representation nor a reverential one. Instead, it mines the absurd aspects for comedy. For instance, an arranged marriage is made official by Sami’s cryptic (and accidental) behaviour during a tea ceremony  in front of his and his wife-to-be’s families, a sequence that manages to comment on just how bizarre dating rituals can be – especially when families are involved.

The same kind of lovingly critical perspective was taken in The Big Sick, another cross-cultural romantic comedy released earlier this year. In that film, also autobiographical, Kumail’s (Kumail Nanjiani) mother surprises him with potential brides every time he visits for lunch. Both films, while providing a refreshing perspective on things about which large numbers of their country’s populations wouldn’t have any idea, hinge on their central relationships. Where The Big Sick was charmingly infectious and rode on delightful chemistry between Kumail and Emily (Zoe Kazan), Ali’s Wedding takes its pick of familiar romantic comedy tropes and with them constructs the romance like a plot device. There’s a feigned antipathy from Dianne, the two hold hands in a movie theatre, and it ends with an inordinate number of dashes to the airport.

As a character, Ali is sort of lazy, a little arrogant and his penchant for music is an aside at best. When he lies about his entrance exam results, we learn that Dianne received the highest score among the Muslim community. We also see that she takes on a great deal more risk by dating Ali and tutoring him when she finally gets to attend university; it’s clear she’s the more compelling character. It’s admirable that the movie includes her story, but given how much more worthy it is, and how much more expressive and subtle a performer Sawires is, I had a difficult time returning to Ali’s troubles owning up to his lies.

Ali’s Wedding is charming and fun and we need more movies like this, especially in Australia. I just hope that, instead of resorting to their own stories, future filmmakers can tell which tales are the real ones worth telling.