“It’s a Wonderful Afterlife” is a movie to make Frank Capra roll over in his grave from indigestion. Gurinder Chadha goes supernatural in her latest feel-good buffet, a London-set tale of murder most foul (yet somehow heartwarming), served with a double helping of fat jokes and food fights. Broad enough to drive a truckload of samosas through, yet achieving the miracle of genuine silliness only through Sally Hawkins’ turn as a daffy psychic, this gluttonous ghost story should appeal to Chadha’s loyal customers but, outside the U.K., will probably experience less-than-stellar B.O. runs.
Scripted by Chadha and usual writing partner Paul Mayeda Berges, “Afterlife” finds the director of “Bend It Like Beckham” and “Bride and Prejudice” treading somewhat darker territory than usual (think “Arsenic and Old Lace”), if only to show that even serial killers are no match for her brand of blithe uplift.
In a revolting opening sight gag, a man (Sanjeev Bhaskar) is force-fed curry at knifepoint until his stomach explodes. It’s the latest work of the Curry Killer, whose crimes — which include asphyxiating a man with nan and stabbing a woman in the neck with a skewer of chicken wings — have stumped police, who bring in hunky Indian detective Murthy (Sendhil Ramamurthy, “Heroes”) to offer an insider’s perspective.
Meanwhile, elderly Punjabi widow Mrs. Sethi (Shabana Azmi) frets about marrying off her daughter, Roopy (Goldy Notay), who is slightly overweight and therefore undesirable, especially compared with her slim best friend, Linda (Sally Hawkins, “Happy-Go-Lucky”), a New Age nut with a fetish for Indian culture. Soon it’s revealed that the murderer is none other than sweet Mrs. Sethi, using her culinary gifts to bump off anyone who dares to spurn Roopy or make fun of her figure; as one character puts it late into the proceedings, “I can’t think of a worse motive in criminal history.”
But when she finds herself haunted by the ghosts of her victims (Bhaskar, Shaheen Khan, Adlyn Ross and Ash Varrez, all looking maimed and dusted with flour), Mrs. Sethi decides to help them find peace by killing herself, but not until after she sees Roopy happily married. This occasions a relentless stream of unfunny one-liners at Roopy’s expense (“She has a bottom like a buffalo!”) from the restless spirits, who follow Mrs. Sethi around and give her advice, at the risk of being discovered by the spiritually attuned Linda.
At his superior’s orders, Murthy starts to investigate Roopy as a potential suspect, leading to some tepid romance and a flurry of musical montages, one of which features the ghosts cheerily doing yoga. Clearly, “It’s a Wonderful Afterlife” doesn’t beg to be taken seriously, which would be fine if it had some moments of real wit and invention in lieu of its mean-spirited fat-bashing and aggressive sentimentality.
In an impossible role, Azmi is easy to sympathize with but harder to buy as a homicidal schemer, instead coming off as a woman with essentially good intentions and a pesky little murder addiction; Notay, hopefully well compensated for all the abuse hurled in her direction, makes a lovely heroine. But it’s Hawkins, in a scene-stealing turn that delivers the movie’s one true payoff, who alone occupies the giddy, high-spirited wavelength Chadha is aiming for; the rest of the pic fumbles around for the right frequency.
Shot at London’s Ealing Studios, the widescreen-lensed pic looks colorful and scrumptious, per Chadha’s usual specifications. Musical elements are upbeat but dropped too quickly to become infectious.