Bollywood’s weakness for foreign locales gets the ultimate French twist in “Befikre,” a Paris-set contemporary romance that asks the age-old question: Can casual sex between friends ever really be separated from love? Director-scripter Aditya Chopra’s first film without Shah Rukh Khan aims so hard to be in tune with current mores – kisses and rumpled bed sheets are as common as papadums at an Indian street fair – that it screams “today!” in every scene, yet the energy level is kept at such a high pitch that its charms are unsustainable. Star Ranveer Singh flaunts his impressively sculpted physique whenever possible, happily ensuring gender parity in body objectification, though he seems to want to upstage co-star Vaani Kapoor at all times. While the stars’ on-screen chemistry works creatively, audiences weren’t buying it; receipts for the movie were less than anticipated.
Perhaps Chopra (“Mohabbatein”), back in the helmer’s chair after eight years, thought it would be fun to play with temporal shifts, but frequent flashbacks and flash-forwards just add to the running time. Like so much of the film, the opening is sweet, yet looks like a prettified commercial for a pseudo-French product: Scores of couples of every conceivable type (except of course same sex) smooch in the City of Love. It’s here that recent émigré to Paris Dharam (Singh, “Gunday”) meets French-born Shyra (Kapoor, “A Random Desi Romance”) at a patently ridiculous daytime outdoor disco on the banks of the Seine. He’s excitable and persistent, she’s fun-loving and noncommittal, but he wins her over for a one-night-stand.
They embark on a wild and crazy relationship (at least, that’s what the original story treatment must have indicated) yet neither is mature enough to recognize they’re in love, and after a blow-out fight, they split. Later they get back together as friends because, let’s face it, they have so much fun together! Shyra starts dating phenomenally rich banker Aney (Arrmaan Ralhan), so Dharam retaliates by pairing off with clueless blonde Christine (Julie Ordon). The foursome have fab holidays on Aney’s enormous yacht on the Riviera, but it’s painfully clear to all viewers that Dharam and Shyra really love only each other. And themselves.
“Befikre,” which is Hindi for “carefree,” sees itself as a valentine to love and Paris, yet it’s the polar opposite of Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, since it feels so childishly cartoonish. Singh’s manic behavior never gets a moment’s rest: He’s a perpetual-motion machine, which is fine when dancing, but why can’t he ever stay still for just a second? No film industry does escapism as well as Bollywood, yet the movie’s shallow artificiality, paired with constant reminders of how “with it” and Western-looking the situations are, means that apart from admiring the eye candy, there’s not much else to hold viewer attention between the production numbers.
Musically there are a couple of generically catchy tunes, the sort that reluctantly get lodged in those still-unexplained regions of the brain whose function remain a mystery. “You and Me” could have been charming with about 10 fewer location shifts, and “Je t’aime” is about as memorable as any tune in “La La Land,” plus it has the added attraction of having the characters dance around their earlier selves in a nice touch of legerdemain special effects. However, even though most of the numbers are shot on location, they all manage to make the sites look like phony backdrops or stage sets, including the de rigueur scene at the top of the Eiffel Tower, replete with wind machine. (At least Kapoor looks stunning – special kudos go to costume designer Natalie Yuksel.)
Japanese-born cinematographer Kaname Onoyama, best known for shooting commercials and music videos as well as the documentary “Mr. X,” delivers attractive, brightly lit visuals without much nuance, forgoing moodiness for splashy universality. Editing, like Singh’s performance, could have used a dose of Ritalin.