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The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)

DIRECTOR: John Madden

CAST: Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Dev Patel, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Tina Desai, Diana Hardcastle, Lillete Dubey

REVIEW:

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is one of those low-key, quiet and inoffensive little comedy-dramas (steeped in oh-so-British reserve) that serve as counter-programming to the big summer action movies.  To that end, it’s not anything unpredictable or edgy, and doesn’t really venture out of its safe zone, but it serves up enough sweetness with dashes of romance and just a drop of poignancy to make it an enjoyable experience that goes down easily, even if it doesn’t necessarily leave the biggest lasting impression.  Those who have a soft spot for lighthearted predictable drama (boosted by a distinguished ensemble cast of respected elder British thespians) might enjoy (one wonders if the movie might play better with those who have more in common, in age and perhaps nationality, with the main characters, than with younger viewers who might want a little more “pep”).  

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel assembles an ensemble of British senior citizens who all end up sharing a ramshackle hotel in India for their own reasons.  Recently-widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench), after forty years of marriage and being dependent on her husband, decides to shake things up with the uncharacteristically impulsive decision to relocate.  Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), a cantankerous racist awaiting hip replacement surgery, reluctantly lets herself be shipped off to India—despite being fearful and suspicious of Indians—because she can receive a much quicker operation there than languishing on a long waiting list in England.  The long-married couple Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) are forced to seek cheap housing when he loses their retirement savings in an ill-advised business venture.  Past-his-prime ladies’ man Norman (Ronald Pickup), rejected by younger women he tries to pursue on dating sites, seeks happier hunting elsewhere, as does Madge (Celia Imrie), who hopes to land a wealthy husband.  And Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a retiring judge, has unfinished personal business to attend to in India, where he spent his youth.  Everyone ends up on the same plane—then the same crowded bus—and finally unpacks their bags at the so-called “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, but find its frazzled young manager Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), an enthusiastic idealist with big dreams of what the rundown estate can become, has exaggerated its readiness for guests.  Some, including Jean and Muriel, are aghast, but others like Evelyn and Douglas set out to make the most of their new life.  Evelyn gets a job as a “cultural adviser” helping Indian call center employees communicate better with elderly British customers.  Douglas joins Evelyn in exploring, while his unhappy wife Jean holes up in the hotel and nurses a crush on the amiable but mysterious Graham, who goes on long daily treks for unclear reasons.    Norman and Madge investigate their romantic prospects at a local club.  Meanwhile, Sonny fights with his mother (Lillete Dubey) both about her skepticism of his hotel aspirations, and his relationship with call center worker Sunaina (Tina Desai), whom his mother does not view as “suitable” for marriage.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel divides its time among various plot threads, some of which are more interesting and/or substantial than others.  The most obvious “filler” is the escapades of past-his-prime playboy Norman and husband-hunting Madge (neither gets that much focus, wisely, but what they do get could have been better-spent on more interesting characters like Evelyn and Graham).  Given that this is a “safe”, inoffensive little movie, these plot strands don’t really go in any shocking or unpredictable directions.  Racist Muriel begins to grudgingly befriend her Indian maid.  Douglas and Jean’s already strained marriage starts to crumble.  Graham reveals his secrets.  Evelyn basically serves as everyone’s confidant, adviser, and sympathetic ear, while her blog provides Judi Dench’s running narration.  Some plot “twists”, like Muriel warming up to her Indian maid, and a climactic breakup, feel rushed and contrived.  Part of the reason why the movie doesn’t rise above its mildly enjoyable level of pleasant diversion is that we feel like we know where this is all going.  At least one of the revelations about Graham is telegraphed early.  Of course true love will conquer all for Sonny and Sunaina (and maybe for others).  Of course the prejudiced Muriel will be converted.  While Madden’s camera spends a little time on the chaotic, bustling flow of life in India, he doesn’t do much with the “fish out of water” potential of a group of British senior citizens trying to navigate Mumbai (especially when some of them are uptight and dysfunctional).  One feels that more could have been wrung out of the premise, especially considering the assembled cast at hand, but the movie is content to play it safe.

The movie has its modest pleasures.  There’s not any laugh-out-loud moments, but the droll, dry British commentary is mildly amusing.  It touches, albeit shallowly, on the strict Indian caste system (Muriel’s maid is an “Untouchable”, a social pariah in Hindu society), and there are a handful of moments of poignancy that give the otherwise lightweight proceedings a little needed substance.  The movie also has something to say about the insecurity that comes with advancing age, and the fears of starting over again so seemingly late in the game (expressed by almost every character in varying ways, whether Norman trying to maintain his ladies’ man status past its expiration date to feel desirable and wanted, or Evelyn striking out on her own and living independently for the first time in her life), but while it acknowledges the inevitabilities that come with age (“put enough old people in one place, and it won’t be long before one of us goes”, Evelyn notes after a death in the group), the message ultimately is optimistic and life-affirming.  Most importantly, the movie is “feel good” effectively enough that we root for everyone to get their happy endings (even if some of them are more due to rushed narrative contortions than being fully earned).

Part of the pleasure (indeed, perhaps the primary pleasure) of Marigold is watching a cast mostly comprised of distinguished elderly British actors doing their thing, and most of them get at least one spotlight moment or two.  Judi Dench, getting to soften up from James Bond’s stern boss M, provides the calm, serene center around which the story revolves (her blog entries also serve as the running narration).  Maggie Smith (world-famous as Harry Potter‘s Professor McGonogall) undergoes the cliched arc of the racist who broadens her horizons.  Bill Nighy is his usual slightly quirky self, though he remains subdued for the most part (he’s toned far down from something like Love Actually) apart from a surprisingly forceful and dramatic outburst late in the proceedings.  Penelope Wilton is obnoxiously shrill as his miserable wife, which might be intentional, but it makes her scenes a bit of a chore.  Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie (in roles originally intended for Peter O’Toole and Julie Christie) feel like superfluous characters.  Dev Patel is likable enough as the frazzled Sonny, though his “forbidden love” subplot also feels a bit tacked-on.  The standout is Tom Wilkinson, who gets the meatiest storyline, including a couple of secrets and a poignant monologue where he unloads one of them to a sympathetic Evelyn.  One almost feels Wilkinson’s Graham and his plotline could have made its own movie unto itself.

At the bottom line, how much you’ll appreciate The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel depends on how much of an affinity you have for these kinds of safe, inoffensive, pleasant little movies like this.  Those seeking something more edgy or thought-provoking might find it an unsatisfying morsel rather than a full banquet of cinematic depth, but at times we also arguably need little “feel good” movies like this.  This hotel might not warrant a five star rating, but many viewers should enjoy their stay, even if they admit it grudgingly.

* * 1/2

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