Like many a good crime story, Beeba Boys begins with a killing. In this instance, it's a South Asian gang-hit outside a Vancouver condo. And then the scene shifts to an Indo-Canadian wedding where the bridegroom, hidden behind an ornate headpiece, is strangely motionless. The wedding, we realize, is actually a funeral.
That realization should be startling, shocking, an instantly arresting way to begin a film and yet, in the hands of director Deepa Mehta, it only materializes as a kind of clearing-up of confusion. "Oh, I get it, this is really a funeral," you say to yourself.
But then you start to wonder: "Is this the guy who was killed in the hit?" (It's not, but it took me two screenings of the film and a check on the credits to figure out that he's a second character.)
The botched scene is the first of many instances in Beeba Boys where Mehta's ham-fisted direction is hugely frustrating. The film has a great premise – it's an action movie and social drama built around the attention-seeking and glamorization of violence that feeds organized crime in Vancouver's Sikh community – that is repeatedly dragged down by the director, her script and her cast.
Tough but smooth and always exquisitely well dressed even if they never wear socks, the "Beeba Boys" are led by the self-satisfied and imperturbable Jeet Johar (played with great presence and much charm by Bollywood actor Randeep Hooda) and entertained by his sidekick the joker Manny (the American actor, jewellery designer and fashion plate Waris Ahluwalia).
There are other members of the gang, almost as well dressed as these two, and it's a bad sign that the characters are largely indistinguishable (despite initial introductions that display their names in onscreen titles).
The king of a small empire built on drugs and guns, Jeet wants to take over turf from old-timer Robbie Grewal (Gulshan Grover): The opening killing of the ironically named Lucky is the first salvo. The Beeba Boys – beeba means "good" or "decent" in Punjabi – are soon joined by a suspiciously enthusiastic new recruit, the small-time hood Nep (Ali Momen). Meanwhile Jeet, who mainly lives at home with his parents and young son, takes a new mistress: The beautiful Polish manicurist Katya Drobot (Sarah Allen) is a member of the jury that has acquitted him of Lucky's murder.
The film juxtaposes the gang plot with various domestic subplots: Jeet's son, Peter, idolizes his invincible dad; Jeet's smart-cookie mother tells him to go straight while his alcoholic father dives deeper into the bottle; Katya feels abandoned as the gang war escalates.
In a film that does have a reliably twisting crime plot with a satisfying denouement, there is too much action to do any of this emotional material justice – unless it could be treated with a quick, light touch.
But on that score, the director who brought us the Elements trilogy (Fire, Earth and Water) seems to have gone missing in action.
On the other hand, the director who brought us Bollywood/Hollywood is in full evidence, and the affectionate humour about controlling Indian mothers or the colourful scenes in temples or at a street festival clash oddly with the crime story.
Mehta wrote the script herself and the dialogue is often painfully forced – or the cast is so underdirected they can make neither the gang lingo nor the jokes sound anything but stilted. As the boys' official humorist Manny, Ahluwalia is a striking figure, but he never manages a performance in which his racist jokes and bad puns seem to fit the dapper character.
Momen's Nep does have a satisfyingly powerful final scene with Hooda's Jeet, but elsewhere his awkward performance creates a character who is either too pretty for the tough lines or too tough for the pretty ones. Hooda is suitably chilling as the sleek crime boss, but can't find much drama in scenes where he is supposed to show his affection for his son and parents, or regret his relationship with Katya. There, Allen does get some mileage exposing the sad life of a gun moll, but mainly the cast's performances are undercut by the script.
In one difficult scene, coincidentally very reminiscent of a famous Mad Men episode, Katya gets up in a nightclub and embarrasses herself by insisting on singing Jeet a Polish lullaby in increasingly off-key tones: Allen might have been able to ace this one, quickly making the point about Katya's naiveté, if the scene were not so excruciatingly prolonged.
When she takes Jeet home to her Polish family, they display overt racism, a prejudice that may be completely realistic but which most Canadian immigrants would know enough to hide in a social setting. Similarly, Mehta includes a scene where Jeet's alcoholic father confesses that he drinks to forget the shame of working for years in a cranberry bog, offering an underdeveloped character one painfully obvious moment to explain himself.
The busy Beeba Boys suffers from a personality trait that probably plagues these hot gangsters, too: It's all slick on the outside, but painfully uncertain of whatever it is that lies behind that façade.