COVID-19 drives the plot in Indian-American romcom

The COVID pandemic turns Rita (Geraldine Viswanathan, left) and Ravi (Karan Soni) into unwilling housemates in 7 Days.

By Richard Ades

“Meeting cute” is a time-honored romcom tradition. Set in the early days of the pandemic, 7 Days offers a new variation in the form of “meeting COVID.”

When Indian-Americans Ravi and Rita (Karan Soni and Geraldine Viswanathan) hold their first date, we’re informed that it takes place in March 2020. Viewers will instantly know why that’s significant: March 2020 was the month that Everything Stopped.

Actually, their date takes place about five minutes before Everything Stopped. The two are taking precautions such as wearing masks (a historical inaccuracy, as the average person didn’t have access to masks until months later), but they’re still able to travel and meet other people. However, that soon changes.

By the time the date comes to its awkward end and they return to Rita’s nearby home, they learn that Ravi is stuck there because the agency that was to supply his rental car has shut down. Reluctantly, Rita offers to let him spend the night on her couch. As you might surmise from the flick’s title, that night stretches into a week’s worth of sheltering in place.

The first directorial effort of Roshan Sethi, who co-wrote the script with Soni, 7 Days is set firmly in the world of Indian-American courtship. Like many stories involving the children of immigrants, it involves a clash between the traditional and the modern.

Ravi belongs to the traditional camp, eschewing meat, alcohol and premarital fooling around, and he assumes Rita is the same. After all, he met her through a traditional dating website. Soon after becoming her houseguest, though, he learns she was only putting on an act to satisfy her mother, who pays her rent. In fact, Rita is the exact opposite of the kind of wife he’s looking for.

At times, 7 Days is like a romcom version of The Odd Couple, pitting the neat mama’s boy Ravi against the sloppy, rebellious Rita. (When he first sees Rita’s messy home, Ravi assumes she has roommates, only to learn she lives alone.) But as the story progresses and the two are forced to face an unexpected challenge, such easy humor is replaced by something deeper and more subtle. At the same time, the two leads—particularly Suni—add nuance to their comedic portrayals.

Do opposites attract? That happens a lot in run-of-the-mill romcoms, but 7 Days may have something else in mind. With the help of brief interviews of actual married couples that are shown in the early moments, it examines the possibility that love is something that’s built with the help of empathy and familiarity rather than being a magical force that appears out of thin air.

If that’s true, then just maybe the conservative Ravi and the free-thinking Rita have a chance to become a couple in spite of themselves.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

7 Days (no MPAA rating) is available through VOD outlets beginning April 26.

The ‘hippie millionaire’ who (briefly) took the country by storm

This poster depicts Michael Brody Jr. and his wife, Renee, as they appeared in 1970.

By Richard Ades

Dear Mr. Brody documents the story of a wealthy young man who captured the country’s attention in 1970 by promising to give away cash to all who needed it.

Michael Brody Jr. was the little-known heir to a margarine dynasty when he suddenly appeared on the national scene with his young bride, Renee, in tow. With his guitar, long hair and talk of peace and love, he made an immediate impression as the “hippie millionaire.” He even landed a recording contract and was invited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show.

More importantly, he inspired thousands of people to queue up outside his Scarsdale home and Manhattan office in search of the promised handouts. Thousands of others simply wrote to him of their needs, which were often dire.

Then, as suddenly as it started, the phenomenon ended due to Brody’s increasingly bizarre behavior and apparent inability to follow through on his promises. The new documentary, written and directed by Keith Maitland, tries to figure out just what happened and what it all means.

It is not a happy story, for multiple reasons.

Due to tragic circumstances mentioned late in the film, Michael Brody himself does not appear except in vintage footage. But the present-day version of Renee does appear, coming across as someone who’s no more together than the lonely 20-year-old who agreed to marry Michael just one day after they met.

Also appearing is Michael and Renee’s grownup son, Michael James Brody III, who seems equally lost. Grossly obese, he lives his life surrounded by memorabilia from his dad’s 15 minutes of fame, including box after box of letters from folks begging the “hippie millionaire” for help.

Those folks, by the way, become as central to the story as the Brody family itself. In fact, it was producer Melissa Robyn Glassman’s discovery of a stash of their unopened letters that led to the film’s being made in the first place.

Many of those letters tell tales of desperation caused by lost jobs, health problems and growing debts. Others mention related problems such as domestic abuse, while still others are from individuals who are simply lonely and want someone to talk to.

Maitland and Glassman bring several of their stories up to date by tracking down the writers and asking them to comment on what they wrote all those decades ago. In one case, a woman is surprised to learn that at the same time she wrote to Brody, her mother also was asking him for help.

Dear Mr. Brody, then, is a devastatingly sad tale with no real villains but with countless victims. Brody himself was the first one, being a well-meaning idealist whose efforts were undermined by his own demons. Renee was another, being led by loneliness into a fraught relationship that still seems to haunt her.

And then there were the thousands of desperate people who begged Brody for help. The fact that they were forced to seek salvation from a complete stranger says much about the society they lived in—which, of course, we still live in today.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Dear Mr. Brody is available from sources such as Apple iTunes, Google Play and Vudu and can be seen beginning April 28 on Discovery+.

Seeing life through the eyes of a dairy cow

An English cow named Luma is at the center of Andrea Arnold’s Cow, an IFC Films release. (Photos courtesy of Kate Kirkwood)

By Richard Ades

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t suffer vegans gladly, join the club. After being harangued by a one at a party—and by Joaquin Phoenix at the 2020 Academy Awards—I decided to avoid them at all costs.

But my feelings have softened a bit after seeing Cow, Andrea Arnold’s documentary about the life of a British bovine. I’m still not ready to give up cheese or other milk-based products, but it’s convinced me that dairy farming is not as benign as I’d believed.

Made over a period of four years on what appears to be a good-sized English farm, the film introduces us to Luma, a black-and-white cow with soulful eyes. Luma leads a monotonous existence: Eat, sleep and get milked, all of which occur in a huge, dank barn shared with dozens of other cows. And, whenever necessary, she’s impregnated so that she can give birth and continue to produce milk.

Does Luma realize what a boring, limiting existence she leads? She often appears to, as when she pauses before joining the other cows as they trudge dutifully toward their twice-daily milking. Or are we simply seeing our own thoughts reflected in her luminous eyes? Cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk’s intimate and sensitive photography makes it so easy to identify with her plight that it’s hard to tell.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to misinterpret Luma’s feelings toward calves, particularly her own. Dairy farming requires cows to be separated from their offspring so that most of their milk can be processed and sold. But Luma doesn’t understand market forces; all she knows is that what’s happening is an attack on her maternal instincts. When her calf is taken away shortly after its birth, she responds by bellowing loudly and repeatedly.

As brilliantly photographed as Arnold’s documentary is, it may be hard for some to watch due not only to its enveloping sadness but to its slow, cow-like pace. One of the few times the somber routine of eating, sleeping and milking is interrupted occurs when good weather allows the cows to be released into the surrounding fields. There they kick up their heels in excitement before settling down to the rare pleasure of grazing on grass and sleeping under the stars.  

Spoiler alert: It must be noted that Luma’s routine also is interrupted in the final moments of the film, when her life is suddenly ended. Why, it’s not clear, though it’s obvious that her udders have become swollen and possibly infected. Is she being put down because she’s ill and in pain, or because she’s outlived her usefulness? The film doesn’t reveal the reason, leaving us to reach our own conclusions.  

Some activists will see Cow as evidence that legislation is needed to protect the welfare of farm animals. Vegans, of course, will see it as proof that they were right all along.

As for average viewers—if they can get past the film’s deliberate pace and final ambiguity—they’ll find Cow a consciousness-raising experience and a chance to see the world through the eyes of an animal that is familiar, and yet a stranger.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Cow opens April 8 in select theaters and on demand.