Glib liberalism can be the bane of moviegoing. In East Is East, a cross-cultural comedy set in 1971, George Khan (Om Puri), a stern Pakistani patriarch, lives in an industrial suburb in the north of England, where he presides over a boisterous mixed-race clan — Ella (Linda Bassett), his ”Eh, wot” Caucasian wife of 25 years (together, they run a fish-and-chip shop), and their seven children, most of whom, despite their dual heritage, don’t consider themselves in any way Pakistani. When George tries to force one of his sons, a floppy-haired disco lothario named Tariq (Jimi Mistry), into an arranged union, the kid objects, grousing that he’ll never marry a ”Paki.” The image of a brown-skinned, ”ethnic”-featured young man who is nevertheless defiant enough to dismiss a Pakistani as the Other is meant to tweak our prejudices. But all I could think was, Gee, wouldn’t Tariq’s first objection be to getting forced into marriage? The movie is so desperate to chalk up a hip theatrical irony that it undercuts common sense.
East Is East is a movie in which the easy socio-racial paradoxes have been diagrammed with more care than the relationships. Om Puri, who played a far subtler divided man in last year’s My Son the Fanatic, has a powerfully saturnine presence, as if his chest contained a quietly molten furnace fire. He enacts George’s traditionalist wrath with scary, brutish conviction, but that doesn’t help us understand why this man, who has spent half his life in England, has now become a live-by-your-roots fascist. And if that’s who he is deep down, wouldn’t his children in some way bear the mark of that fervor? East Is East later introduces a family of more heritage-bound Pakistanis, and the movie resolves things by treating them as complete, arrogant boobs. Scratch a glib liberal and, more often than not, you’ll find a jejune reactionary. C+