A Punjabi “Pygmalion,” director Lorraine Senna’s “Americanizing Shelley” is a sweet-natured, often charming twist on the assimilation comedy, the Ugly Ducking story, even “Cyrano de Bergerac” — even if it’s recycled/tortured into narrative existence. Although she makes fun of Bollywood conventions, screenwriter and star Namrata Singh Gujral will probably find her most appreciative aud among young Indian moviegoers who want something outside the arthouse.
Some might take exception to the “Americanizing” of the title, a process which apparently means making a nice, shy, sari-wearing, pigtailed Sikh girl in Chicken Little glasses comfortable dressing like a hooker. But this is a Hollywood story as much as it’s anything else: Shalini (Gujral), soon to be transformed into “celebrity” Shelley Picante, arrives in Los Angeles from the Himalayas to reunite with Neil (Philip Rhys), to whom she was betrothed as a child.
Neil has become a Hollywood agent — which, in keeping with the cliches of the script, means he’s a schnook. He can’t see what the audience easily can, that beneath Shalini’s homely facade is a babe. Neither can Rob (Brad Raider), who is challenged by his boss (Beau Bridges) to turn the most unlikely candidate they can find into a paparazzi magnet.
Shalini agrees to go along with the scheme because she thinks it will help her win back Neil. Rob decides to remake her as Hispanic, which is probably the slyest joke in the movie.
Visually, the film is adequate, but the editing by Chris Roth and Troy Takaki is first-rate, finding great jokes in unlikely juxtapositions. Having her cake and eating it, too, scribe Gujral kids Bollywood excesses while still having her characters do things like dance facetiously around trees in the rain
Despite the clunkiness of some of the dialogue and the unlikelihood that much of “Americanizing Shelley” would actually happen — in this world or Bollywood’s — the film has a charm that is rooted in its actors (particularly Ronreaco Lee as Blaine, a sort of all-purpose buddy).
Shaheen Khan, who played a similar matriarch in “Bend it Like Beckham,” is Shalini’s long-suffering mother; Gujral herself is a vivacious entity, and Bridges, getting away from the ineffectual characters he’s tended to play lately, is a strong presence as the talent agency’s Obi-Wan. He’s the guy who gets the whole Shelley ball rolling. You don’t, in the end, hold it against him.