Scattered amid the lukewarm masala of musical comedy, romantic melodrama, and unsynchronized passions that is “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil,” there are teasing indications that the movie might have been better had it been more meta. Writer-director Karan Johar occasionally enlivens the dawdling song-and-dance with cheeky allusions to classic Indian films — including a spirited homage to “An Evening in Paris,” a 1967 vehicle for superstar Shammi Kapoor, great-uncle of this film’s male lead, Ranbir Kapoor — and wink-wink send-ups of Bollywood tropes.
At one point, female lead Anushka Sharma outfits herself for a traditional dance sequence, but must consult the Internet for instructions on how to wrap a sari. Johar also includes a jokey mention of “My Name Is Khan,” his own 2010 terrorist drama, to amp the self-referential quotient. But even if you catch this joke and all the others, you may find yourself fidgeting as time passes and clichés accumulate while “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil” — scheduled to open on more than 300 screens in the U.S. — charts the less-than-compelling relationship between Ayan (Kapoor), a well-to-do young man in the grip of arrested adolescence, and Alizeh (Sharma), a sharp-witted beauty who’s been seriously unlucky in love.
After a comically unconsummated first encounter, Alizeh insists that she and Ayan remain nothing more — but, on the other hand, nothing less — than very good friends who party hearty together. Right from the start, it’s clear Alizeh has good reason to doubt Ayan is sufficiently mature for a long-term commitment: After they catch his gold-digging girlfriend in flagrante with her family-approved beau, he, not she, is the one who collapses into a weepy wreck. More important, Alizeh is philosophically opposed to romantic complications under any circumstances: “Love is passion,” she tells Ayan, “but friendship is peace.”
Alizeh contradicts herself, of course, when she reunites with a former lover, Ali (Fawad Khan), a successful DJ who once broke her heart and, truth to tell, behaves as though he’s fully capable of taking a few more whacks at it after they marry. For his part, Ayan finds solace, among other things, with Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), an attractive poet who inspires him to pursue a pop-singing career. Everything leads to a third-act twist that is absurdly shameless, even by Bollywood standards. Unfortunately, Johar doesn’t appear to have intended it as another joke.
The performances are at best uneven, with Sharma pushing the feisty sarcasm business a tad too hard, and Kapoor often erring on the side of annoying while trying to balance vulnerability and self-centeredness. (It’s a trick he pulled off much better in 2009’s “Wake Up Sid,” which Johar co-produced.) Bachchan seems to have wandered in from another movie, one where emotions are conveyed in subtler and more affecting fashion. When she takes her leave from “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil,” you may wish you could go with her.