Friday, May 11, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

In the blog that provides a cozy canopy of voiceover truisms to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) writes that India is like a powerful wave. Resist and it will mow you down, but go with the flow and it may take you someplace delightful.

That turns out to be a pretty good metaphor for the movie itself. A fable for the AARP generation, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel provides just enough reality to conjure up the age when people’s options start to really narrow (if you thought 30 was scary, this movie implies, just wait until you hit 70), then assures us that we’ll always have more than enough options as long as we’re brave enough to keep trying new things. To make that point, it layers on the clich├ęs so deep in every direction—from the characters and their relationships to the cinematography to the carpe diem aphorisms—that you may be tempted to make a beeline for the shore. But if you can relax into a leisurely dogpaddle, you’ll soon settle comfortably into the cinematic equivalent of a nice warm bath.

That said, I have to admit that it took me a little while to assume the position, and even then there were times when I couldn’t maintain it. I’m not usually a fan of movies that keep doling out neatly wrapped morals, or that pair up their characters to deliver speeches to one another about what they just did or thought or felt instead of just letting us watch them do or think or feel things, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is brimming with morals and expository speeches.

And yet, and yet. Sonny, the young manager, advertises the beautiful but ramshackle hotel he inherited from his father as a home “for the elderly and beautiful,” and his guests are that, all right. Sonny himself may be exhaustingly hyperactive (he’s played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel, who tries to compensate for his lack of emotional range by rushing around like the Looney Tunes’ Road Runner, wind-milling his arms as he goes), but his guests are excellent company. With Dench sharing screen time, in the equitably braided narrative, with Maggie Smith, Billy Nighy, and Tom Wilkinson as Muriel, Douglas, and Graham, three fellow refugees from chilly, elder-unfriendly England, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a kind of active adult community for some of Britain’s most gifted and charismatic 65-plus actors. These people are elders in the best sense of the word, brilliant old pros who know their craft so well they can win us over with a line—or a look.

Not even they can breathe real life into this prefab script, but Dench, Nighy and Wilkinson pickle the proceedings in a sweet mixture of rueful warmth and charm, while Smith throws in a welcome dash of bitters as an unrepentantly racist recluse who does a 180 after coming to India for a hip operation she would have been wait-listed for back home. If you think too much about it, her change of heart seems completely improbable and insufficiently motivated, but let yourself go with the flow and Smith sells it so cannily you won’t even question the switch, partly because she always makes sure we see Muriel’s vulnerability even when she says hateful things.

As the miserable, perpetually angry wife of Douglas, the deflated Nighy character, Penelope Wilton also wins our sympathy despite behaving abominably, ladling up big, painful dollops of her character’s furtive desperation. Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup also inject enough regret and neediness into their matching-bookend characters, a horny old goat in search of a (preferably much younger) sex partner and a sexy grandma on the hunt for a wealthy man, to make them more than just laughable caricatures. In fact, one of the few times this formulaic script surprised me is when it refused to pair up those two, who seemed as inevitably bound for couple-dom as the martyr-married Douglas and the newly widowed Evelyn.

Meanwhile, the platitudes keep flowing, often through Evelyn’s blog. (““Can there be anyplace else in the world that is such a feast for the senses?” she writes.) So do the sitcom-y jokes, like when Muriel tells a doctor she doesn’t count on living long at her age, saying: “I don’t even buy green bananas.” The visuals can be painfully cute, too, as in the scene—which happens twice, in quick succession—when the seven main characters wind up seated all in a row, facing the camera, as they wait for a plane.

But then we get a gem of a moment, like when Bill Nighy floats through Judi Dench’s room, swaying like one of those wind sock men and mocking himself with prototypical English self-deprecation, his flawless comic timing making a line as simple as “would you like me to not fix that chair?” into the funniest thing you’ve heard all week. And we relax, happy just to be in the company of this prodigiously talented, well-seasoned crew.

Written for TimeOff

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