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If you walk into a Karan Johar film expecting subtlety, the joke is on you. The director has made a successful, nearly 20-year career out of using his films as vehicles to showcase stunning places, gorgeous people, and grand emotions. His unabashed preference of style (often over substance) and lavishness over logic has come to define his brand of cinema, so much so that audiences not only let him get away with it, but even look forward to his inflated-in-every-way productions by now.

But even being adequately prepared isn’t enough to keep us from feeling drained from his latest release, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. A film that Johar has admitted has been heavily inspired by his own experiences with love and rejection, its story follows Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor), an aspiring singer who hasn’t yet experienced the heartache required to give his voice much gravitas, until he falls hard for the sassy and spirited Alizeh (Anushka Sharma). Still reeling from a past breakup, Alizeh has little interest in making Ayan anything more than a close friend. Ayan’s disappointment turns to full-on heartbreak when Alizeh returns to her first love, Ali (Fawad Khan), as he realizes that while his attachment to her is unwavering, it may never be reciprocated.

But even while watching Ayan’s steadfast pining for Alizeh, it’s difficult to amass enough feelings of our own towards their relationship, thanks in large part to the fact that their interactions are based on little more than a mutual affinity for spouting off lines from Hindi movies. Ayan and Alizeh bond over bantering that borrows heavily from movie scripts, dancing to Bollywood playlists, and recreating famous scenes from 80s hits. It’s as though the Johar, along with co-writer Niranjan Iyengar, molded the screenplay around how many cinematic quotes (many, cheekily, borrowed from Johar’s own previous films) could be crammed in, regardless of whether they truly propel the narrative forward.
As a result, the connection between the two leads seems affable, but nowhere close to capable of spawning Ayan’s deep dive into lifelong devotion. While the entire first half balances on a rickety foundation of recycled dialogue, the film swerves to a different sort of superficiality in the second act, as Ayan finds temporary solace in the arms of poetess Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), whose ornate Urdu even compels Ayan to ask, at one point, whether she rehearses her conversations in advance. The non-illusion is complete with a preposterous twist in the third act, thrust in as a convenient but highly unsatisfying way for Johar to rush the 155 minute running time to a conclusion.

While Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is a disappointing platform for the much-anticipated reunion of Kapoor and Sharma, who last starred together in the colossal belly flop that was last year’s Bombay Velvet, it’s their presence, incidentally, that keeps the film from entirely falling apart. Whether they’re volleying quips or sharing tears, there’s a natural, easygoing chemistry between them that makes up for – even elevates – some of the contrived comedy and melodrama; after an unsatisfying string of performances in recent films, Kapoor, in particular, stands out for delivering expressions that capture the pain of a broken heart in a way that the film’s dialogues fail to do. Though most supporting cast members (and a few celebrity cameos, typical in a Johar production) feel like wasted talent – Khan has a total of maybe 10 minutes of screen time at best – Bachchan is resplendent in a performance that’s both understated and scene-stealing, lending a welcome air of maturity to a story that at times feels like the visual representation of a diary Johar may have kept in his angst-filled twenties.

In the capable hands of actors who can siphon the nuances from a screenplay soaked in cliches, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has many shining instances that reveal the poignant story Johar intended to tell. But those few genuinely heart-wrenching and chuckle-worthy moments aside, inconsistent tonality, uneven pacing, and far too many self-referential winks dilute this tale of unrequited love before it even has a chance to fully develop.
IndieWire