Evanston RoundTable, June 6, 2012
This seems to be the alta cocker feel-good movie of the year. A passel of British geezers on a tight budget move to a colorful old retirement hotel in northwest India, where they manage to work out their problems of loving, living and dying with grit, good sense and gentle humor. What fun.
Only it’s not. The script of “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” saddles the all-star cast with predictable snappy banter, clichéd sentiments and cringeworthy stereotypes. Which is a shame, a waste of talent, as if Shakespeare had put aside Macbeth to write Beavis and Butthead. It could have been worse, but it should have been a whole lot better.
Start with the lame script. “You’re not worried about having sex at your age?” one old-timer asks another. “No. If she dies, she dies.”
“It’s a luxury development, where all the residents are in their golden years.” “Like the coast of Florida?” “Yes, but with more elephants.”
“I tell you it’s tough to get upgraded these days. I had to flirt so hard with the travel agent it was practically phone sex.”
The one-liners, which bear all the spontaneity of a Mumbai call center script, hamper the great talents of Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, and supporting actors whose names you might not recognize but who are every bit as good.
When not dishing lame jokes, the cast is dispensing annoying platitudes, such as the manager’s oft-repeated reassurance: “In India we have a saying: everything will be all right in the end. So if it’s not all right, it’s not yet the end.” Of course, in this formulaic comedy things are not all right, until the end.
Or a character’s somber insistence that adapting to the alien culture is “…like a wave. Resist and you’ll drown. Dive into it and you’ll come out the other side.”
Good advice. If only the characters could take advantage of it. But one of them is a wheelchair-ridden xenophobe, two others are on the prowl for wealthy mates, another is a vicious shrew with an enabling milquetoast for a husband. These multi-dimensional actors are squeezed down to one dimension, and forgettable ones at that.
Not the least egregious of the stereotyped characters is the hotel’s young and energetic manager, played by Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire, whose overbearing mother moves in to run the hotel, his love life and his psyche. His frustrations mirror ours.
Two things keep the movie from sinking altogether. One is the setting. The Brits still have a feeling for their old colony, and the people, colors, sounds and music of India are beautifully rendered and vastly appealing. In terms of its canvas of hues and humanity, the movie can stand with some of the other great Indian films like Monsoon Wedding and The River. The other saving grace is the acting. Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Judi Dench are three of the finest actors working today, and to watch them gradually transcend the material and find the depth, humor and personality of their characters makes for, ultimately, an ending that’s all right.