It should come as no surprise that a Western attempt to tap into the Bollywood craze would require a white leading lady, but “Marigold” delivers an uneven yet charming approximation of the form without too many other compromises. Upbeat musical melodrama preserves all the song-and-dance flair one might expect from a star-crossed Hindi-language romance, with a radiant Ali Larter serving as a point of identification for U.S. auds. Prospects look limited to a low-profile specialty run, though the story’s American slant could broaden pic’s appeal beyond that of even the best-reviewed Bollywood imports.
To its credit, the movie takes place almost entirely in India. After introducing C-list Hollywood actress and first-class diva Marigold Lexton (Larter), who bosses people around aboard a Bombay-bound flight in an unflattering display of American entitlement, pic settles down in Goa, where the film gig Marigold expected to find falls through. Her manager is glad to be rid of her, so the actress, effectively stranded in a foreign country she despises, decides to stick around.
It goes without saying that the abrasive American star will reverse her conceptions of India and fall in love with a local, and a fair amount of the story unfolds according to formula: Marigold stumbles on a movie shoot, where she falls for handsome choreographer Prem (Bollywood star Salman Khan).
Pic plays Marigold’s assertive personality for comedy, challenging each of her suitors in this male-dominated world to “tame” her. Her questionable acting background (her credits include “Fatal Attraction 3” and “Basic Instinct 3”) serves as an amusing contrast to the local filmmaking style: At first, Marigold can’t dance worth a damn, though she pesters the director for notes about her character’s “motivation,” resulting in a culture clash between the two approaches.
Writer-director Willard Carroll (“Playing by Heart”) goes out of his way to uphold the traditions of Indian cinema, though he cheats somewhat by presenting all but two of the dance numbers as scenes from the Bollywood movie-within-the-movie. They are spectacular, to be sure, with entire platoons of dancers jumping and kicking in unison, but auds are reminded of the artifice every time a crane or camera swoops in front of the action.
The movie features seven original songs, presumably one for each of the seven stages of love (the majority are sung in un-subtitled Hindi). The most successful are those in which the characters spontaneously break out in song, in the exuberant style for which Bollywood is known.
Caught in the kaleidoscope of cultural discovery, Marigold and Prem make a winning couple. Larter trades on the same split personality that defines her character on TV’s “Heroes,” beginning the movie as a disagreeable egotist, then slowly becoming more submissive. Khan’s Prem follows a different track, charming at first, but ultimately forced to reveal his secret: He’s an Indian prince, already betrothed to another woman.
Marigold isn’t entirely unattached, either. Her own boyfriend (Ian Bohen, a wooden addition to an otherwise professional cast) travels all the way to India to win her back. “Life isn’t a Bollywood movie,” she insists. “You can’t just dance and giggle your way into the sunset.” But why not? The gaudy fantasy of “Marigold” is much more satisfying than the sudden seriousness that bogs down the final act.
Rich, intricate costumes and vibrant sets amplify the energetic vibe. Graeme Revell’s electronic score interweaves nicely with catchy synthesizer-based songs from Indian composing trio Shankar Ehsaan Loy, the resulting East-West fusion a fitting complement to pic’s central romance.