"My Beautiful Laundrette" is quirky and fresh and ambitious and pretty much everything a movie should be, except good. At least, though, director Stephen Frears and screen writer Hanif Kureishi haven't made a movie just to make a movie -- they have something to say.
That something is a stew of themes about the class, sexual and political currents in contemporary England that never quite percolates. Omar (Gordon Warnecke) is a young Pakistani set to drift, so his father (Roshan Seth) sends him to work for his Uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey), a go-getter with a host of enterprises. One of these is a failing laundromat. When Omar asks to run it with his friend Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis), Nasser says fine, half-hoping he'll fall on his face.
The movie develops, in part, as a critique of Thatcherism, which the laundromat represents in microcosm. As Omar renovates the laundromat (which becomes, indeed, beautiful, a glossy deco paradise), he also gets hard and greedy, not the man Johnny fell in love with (unbeknownst to anyone, the pair are lovers). Though Omar is a foreigner, a "Pakkie" Johnny's friends sneer at, he's also, in a way, more British than they are, a gung-ho partisan of the new order.
Omar is at the center of "My Beautiful Laundrette" -- he's the one things happen to, the one who wants money and love both -- but Kureishi never quite defines him, and Warnecke gives him no help. You don't quite understand what he's up to as he bats his eyelashes, pipes perkily and slaps a grin on his face, until you realize . . . he's doing Audrey Hepburn! It makes all the heavyweight dialectic of "My Beautiful Laundrette" go a little too lightly.
Worse, Kureishi never comes up with a proper frame for the themes he's interested in. There is a vague suspense plot, involving drug deals, that's superimposed from outside; there is pressure on Omar (to marry Nasser's daughter) and pressure on Johnny (to quit hanging around with a "Pakkie"). But the tensions in the story don't grow out of character -- they grow out of the societal forces the characters represent. The movie's at one remove from itself.
Jaffrey, on the other hand, provides some crass, broad-bellied fun as he plies Omar with advice; Seth, as the burned-out, socialist father, seedy but imperial, proves once again that he has as much presence as any actor alive.
And like the movie, which is merely pretty, the gaunt and chiseled Lewis is an eyeful (but little more than that). In "My Beautiful Laundrette," everything is half what it ought to be. Maybe it needs bleach or something.
My Beautiful Laundrette, at the K-B Janus, is rated R and contains nudity, profanity and sexual situations.