Back in 2007, Wes Anderson got skewered by quite a few critics for the way he used the Indian setting of “The Darjeeling Limited;” the indie auteur was essentially accused of orientalism for his almost fetishistic spiritualization of the sub-continent. The next year, “Slumdog Millionaire” was attacked by some as “poverty porn” for depicting the harsh slums of Mumbai in an aesthetically appealing fashion.
If “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” hasn’t been met with similar saber-rattling from the PC crowd, it’s probably because the movie is so completely harmless and slight that it barely merits a second thought, much less a critical one. The film, by “Shakespeare in Love” director John Madden and based on the novel “These Foolish Things” by Deborah Moggach, is affectionately racist in the notion of repressed elderly British people traveling to India and discovering a liberating place of magic and wonder and peace and love and Dev Patel. But its characters are so broadly sketched and its various plots unfold in such rote fashion, one wonders if there was much of any thought whatsoever put into this film, much less politically incorrect thought.
That is not to say that this is an incompetent film. No, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” may stagger you with its sheer competency. Everything chugs along, the necessary beats are hit, and in the end perhaps we’ll leave mildly entertained. No more, no less.
You couldn’t ask for less of an exposition: in the first ten minutes of the film, we are hurriedly introduced to the septuagenarian set that will compose our band of stiff-upper-lipped protagonists. There’s Evelyn (Judi Dench), recently widowed and wallowed in debt. Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a retiring judge who used to live in India. Jean (Penelope Wilton) and Doug (Bill Nighy), who lost their savings to an ill-advised investment in their daughter’s Internet start-up. Muriel (Maggie Smith), a retired housekeeper who needs a hip replacement and perhaps a lobotomy. Finally there’s Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup), an aging gold-digger and Lothario, respectively. This motley collection all discover, independently and through the magic of the Internet (what did they all Google to end up at the same dubious web site, I wonder?), an Indian home for the elderly that appeals to…what, exactly? Their romantic impulses? Their wallets? Their sense of adventure? These are wildly different characters who a) don’t even know each other and b) theoretically have quite varied motivations, yet there it is – ten minutes in, some sort of hive mind mentality kicks in and watch out, Dev Patel, the British are coming!
Patel brings some of the indefatigable energy of his “Slumdog” hero as the idealistic owner of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which needless to say is less than advertised. Patel’s character is a stubborn dreamer but lacks both the business sense to get his Hotel out of the gutter and the courage to tell his meddlesome, traditionalist mother to stop trying to arrange marriages for him, please. You can’t really blame him, considering he has a gorgeous free-thinking girlfriend (Tena Desae) doting on his every move, and the reasoning behind his mother’s objections are never adequately explained. Perhaps she’s merely trying to discourage Dev Patel from his consistent over-reaching.
But really you couldn’t ask for more of a cast. Whatever the limitations of the paint-by-numbers story (do you think the crotchety old racist lady will have a meaningful encounter with a low-caste servant girl and re-think her crotchety old racist lady ways? of course she will!), “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” benefits from that bevy of distinguished British thespians. Actors like these are never going to give you anything less than their best, and they can turn even the clunkiest dialogue or trite relationship turn into a delight. Nighy and Dench in particular are wonderful in their all-too-brief interactions. Nighy’s quirky facial tics and permanently hesitant speech pattern give him an awkwardly adorable puppy dog demeanor, like a vision of Andrew Garfield’s future, while Dench can impart gravitas and meaning even to her character’s ridiculously silly late-life reincarnation as a call center assistant. Neither actor has gotten much credit for their comedic abilities over the years, but here they display the kind of perfect timing that only arises out of studious craftwork.
Then there’s poor Penelope Wilton, handed the closed-minded shrewish wife role for the umpteenth time in her career. No one can put on a false smile like Wilton, but boy did I want her to break character and introduce herself as “Harriet Jones, Prime Minister.” Just once. And Maggie Smith – if there is anyone who could redeem such a beyond-redemption troglodyte, it might be her, but she could use a script that doesn’t resort to anachronism and deus ex machina to do it.
There’s self-discovery abound in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” – from Wilkinson’s closeted gay going in search of his childhood lover, to Muriel’s magic entry into post-racial society, to Madge and Norman’s acceptance that they might not be 25 anymore (though lord knows neither of them really had much of a crisis of confidence in the first place), to Evelyn’s realization that she can do…something. That’s not confusion on my part, by the way, that’s literally Evelyn’s epiphany – that after a lifetime of being a stay-at-home mother and wife, she can actually get paid to do something (Evelyn seems to have missed the whole feminism boat).
One can only conclude that Madden hoped the audience would avoid any similar self-reflection, at which point they would realize they had just spent nearly $10 to see an extremely well-casted Lifetime movie.
Now playing in some indie theaters.
Verdict: 2 out of 4 stars