Saturday, May 12, 2012

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

 4 / 5 

To get the cynical view out of the way first, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a land-locked British version of "The Love Boat," featuring a bunch of aging actors you probably know in vignettes about love and loss, with young not-quite-stars thrown in to appeal to the kids who may be watching.

Instead of Esther Williams, Red Buttons and Debbie Reynolds, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith, and that makes all the difference.  These are extraordinary actors, who lift material that could be cloying and maudlin into the realm of, if not art, then grand and memorable entertainment.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel doesn't have a single car chase, super villain or explosion, though there is a fire that plays quite a dramatic role in the proceedings, so it's unclear how the film got made, much less released just as the summer movie season gets underway.  And although the summer releases are just starting, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is already a relief.

It's increasingly rare to see movies that revolve around real adults, much less the senior citizens who come to live at the titular hotel. They don't have very much at all in common, except that they've reached a point in their lives that the people around them are saying they need to slow down, maybe have a little help, possibly live in a house with, you know, railings and panic buttons in case of a fall.

For various reasons, they end up at a hotel in India, lured by a website and brochure that promises exotic splendor for their golden years.  The hotel's owner (Dev Patel, the youngest member of the cast) has a wildly optimistic opinion of his operation.  But, then, he's wildly optimistic about everything, and it's hard to argue with his reasoning: "In India, we have a saying - everything will be all right in the end. If it is not all right, then it is not the end."

So, they stay, at least for a while, and we get to know them.  Some have a greater lust for life than others.  Some believe in India, some don't.  Some embrace their maturity, others are dreadfully scared of it.  Some are intrigued by the future, others trapped by the past.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is light on plot, but heavy on charm.  As it insists India itself is, the film is warm and ingratiating.  The characters it offers are compelling, well-drawn people with complexities of their own. To me, the most memorable were Tom Wilkinson as a man who has journeyed to India for a very specific reason; Penelope Wilton as a woman who realizes, the moment she sets foot in India, that she has made far too many mistakes; and Maggie Smith, whose character is angry and shockingly racist, and whose pre-ordained change of heart feels authentic because it underscores what a sad, lonely life she has had.

Judi Dench is the real standout -- both frightened and confident, curious and reticent, she is the observer of the group, the very modern blog she keeps provides the film's narration.  She's also an extraordinary actress; watch the scene in which she calls her son back home on a whim -- the way loss, sadness and fear creep over her face, just fleetingly.

Loss and sadness are everywhere in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, because it's a movie about people who have lived full lives.  But they are overwhelmed by change, by the future, and a handful of people who thought their lives were almost over instead discover, in a most unlikely place, that possibility still exists.

Viewed May 11, 2012 - ArcLight Hollywood

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