Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
Expectations can be a burden, and “Happy New Year” is heavy laden: director Farah Khan and leading man Shahrukh Khan (no relation) have made two prior features, 2004's “Main Hoon Na” and 2007's “Om Shanti Om,” that fall anywhere between “a lot of fun” and “all-time classic” depending on whom one asks, and there are plenty of people one can ask, as both films were enormously popular. Not to mention, Farah's choreography kept Shahrukh from falling off the top of a train in “Dil Se.” For Western audiences unfamiliar with these titles, suffice to say, this director-star duo's reunion is A Very Big Deal. And, as if that wasn't enough, they've been developing, to some degree or other, “Happy New Year” for almost a decade.
While a compelling argument that expecting another “Om Shanti Om” or a work of similarly awe-inspiring scale is setting the bar unfairly high, even resetting all factors to neutral, “Happy New Year” would be a mysteriously sloppy piece of work. Its premise is a tantalizing one given the director's immense skill as a choreographer and visual stylist and deft hand with comedy. The son of a convicted thief assembles a team to exact revenge against the sinister tycoon who framed the father by stealing a set of invaluable diamonds, which requires that the avengers enter a dance competition. The execution of that premise is extremely erratic; there are few movies in living memory that ricochet between shockingly offensive comic business and utterly disarming hilarity as drastically as this one.
It's that mercurial aspect to the comedy that causes hesitation before branding it outright as homophobic or racist. There are mean-spirited straight male gay panic gags side by side with awkward but clearly affectionate normalizing of gay desire. There are truly shocking moments of racism toward East Asians (including a “they all look alike” joke that, although scorned by another character on-screen, is still a “they all look alike” joke in 2014), side by side with a whole subplot about Shahrukh showing how progressive he is by being nice to a North Korean kid.
Almost the entire first half of the movie, until the intermission, is a bit of a disaster. The second half, featuring more dancing and the fruition of the heist plot, is a good deal more fun. The heist sequences are tensely staged, goofily over-the-top convolution in the spirit of “Ocean's Eleven” or Shahrukh Khan's own “Don” remake and sequel, defying logic and even rational linearity at every turn, and quite fun. But it's the dance sequences, featuring cortex-melting costume design and Farah Khan choreography—it's not her best work, but even a slightly off-her-game Farah Khan towers over mere mortals—go a long way toward making the whole enterprise worthwhile.