Wednesday, May 23, 2012

It’s Not The Spitfire Grill; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Is Long, Cluttered And Predictable.

The Good: Exceptional acting, Decent cinematography, Moments of character
The Bad: Long and feels long, Exceptionally predictable, Tries to service too many characters
The Basics: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is about three characters heavy as a story of British senior citizens finding purpose in a rundown hotel in India.

I am not one of those reviewers who needs to have a movie that is big, full of explosions or exciting at every moment. Indeed, two of my favorite movies are slow - The Spitfire Grill (reviewed here!) – and filled with many characters Magnolia (reviewed here!). So, when I went to the screening of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel last night, I was not inherently prejudiced against it. In fact, I wanted to like it. I wanted to like it very much.

But The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is long . . . and it feels long. It is slow and the pace would not be quite as bad were it not for the fact that it results in characters getting lost for significant chunks of the movie, so by the time they pop back up, the viewer does not actually are about their arc any longer. The pace would not be so problematic if the film did not go in arguably the most predictable possible directions for the plot and character arcs. It’s insult to injury to sit through a long, drawn-out film only to arrive at pretty much where you figured you’d end up hours before.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is chock full of characters and it is three-quarters serious drama, one-quarter fish out of water comedy. The film establishes Evelyn Greenslade as a widow, whose husband took care of her for forty years and left her pretty much unprepared for life when he died abruptly. Graham Dashwood is a high court judge who is fed up and abruptly retires one day. Douglas Ainslie and his wife Jean have invested all of his retirement money in their daughter’s internet start-up and they have almost no money left to live on as a result, a fact which deeply angers Jean. Muriel is an old racist woman who needs hip replacement surgery, but cannot stand being around anyone who is not white British. Madge is a flirtatious woman who wants very much to land another husband (or just have lots of sex) and Norman is an enthusiastic old man who is looking for a young woman who can restore (or maintain) his sense of virility. All seven of these Brits end up headed to India and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel For The Elderly & Beautiful, a run-down old establishment that Sonny is still desperately trying to restore, with his severely limited funds.

Each of the people have their own reason for traveling to India. Graham is searching for someone from his past, from when he lived there forty years prior. Jean feels trapped, though Douglas starts to explore the city around the hotel. Evelyn visits an Indian call center, ostensibly for a cathartic moment from the trauma of calling one (when her character is introduced) and being treated poorly. As Sonny works to get the hotel up and running while reconciling his love life, Muriel has her surgery and recovers, tended to only by an Untouchable woman (Anokhi). The other two work on landing their next partner.

From there, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel becomes a waiting game. Will Sonny be able to maintain control of the hotel once his overbearing mother arrives? Will sonny actually tell Sunaina that he loves her? Will Graham find the love of his life (a man he had a summer with forty years ago)? Will Douglas get sick of his nagging, bitchy wife and leave her? Will Evelyn find happiness? Will Norman or Madge manage to hook up with someone who will keep them in a lifestyle they find appealing for the rest of their life? It’s almost hard to care. And it is not because The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel does not set up the premise well, it just seems to be That Type Of Movie. So, for example, you might note I didn’t ask if Muriel would kick her racism and become a decent human being.

The reason that question is not posed is that it is obvious from the beginning. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is That Type Of Movie where the moment Muriel is established the viewer pretty much figures her character arc will be to soften some to people of color and “surprise” everyone with a sense of decency. It takes most of the movie, through which Maggie Smith’s Muriel is absent from the film. In fact, while The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel adequately explores Graham and Evelyn’s characters and keeps Douglas and Jean on-screen enough to give viewers a sense of what is going on with them, Norman, Muriel and Madge each disappear from the film for significant amounts of time.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not all bad; in fact it is far less bad and more tedious for the most part. First, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has some very funny lines. The film is set up as a comedy and for the first half hour, it is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. The humor in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel dies a pretty quick death in India. I became aware of the utter absence of laughter or humor pretty much the moment Graham admitted to Evelyn that he was gay. After that point, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel becomes a drama that is almost as oppressive as the heat of India onscreen.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel employs far too many clichés after the point where Graham comes out. Jean, who might have simply been interpreted as terribly pretentious before that, becomes insufferable and increasingly mean through the rest of the picture. The viewer is given no reason outside inertia as to how Douglas can stand her, a motivation that becomes less and less satisfying as Douglas grows from his experiences in India. Even Norman, who barely has a part in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel suddenly becomes reason for a senior citizen virility cliché. Norman does manage to find a woman, one who he woos by stopping the airs he puts on and instead exposing his rawness to her. He and Carol are simply two lonely older people. Fine, that works. Norman wants to give Carol a night of passion, so he gets some pills. I bought that premise, but later in the film when Carol tells Madge that she swapped out the pills, it felt like a cheap cliché. It felt familiar.

What The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel does exceptionally well is use the cast. John Madden, who directed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel assembled some of the most impressive talent in acting today (albeit a very BBC bunch!) by bringing together Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Norman Pickup, Maggie Smith, Celia Imrie, and Penelope Wilton. Putting such a seasoned cast with the enthusiastic young Dev Patel, who is still probably best known for his performance in Slumdog Millionaire (reviewed here!), works.

What is arguably most impressive in the casting and acting is how relative newcomer Tena Desae holds her own, especially opposite Judi Dench. Dasae is much more than just a pretty face/beauty queen; she has a surprising amount of gravitas as she uses her face to perform. In fact, one of the best moments in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a simple look in Dasae’s eyes as Sunaina empathizes with Evelyn’s plight from her former interaction with a call center worker. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is smart enough not to make it explicit or sappy, but I have a sneaking suspicion that rewatching the film would reveal that it was Sunaina who spoke with Evelyn at the outset of the film.

As far as the acting, it pretty much flawlessly creates the world of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In fact, the only notes I had on the performances were related to Bill Nighy. I have, largely, been a fan of Bill Nighy’s works. I have seen him in many things and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a great example of him at his best and worst. On the “best” front, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel features a sequence where the Brits react to the Indian food they are given . . . with prolonged time in the bathroom. During this somewhat predictable comedic montage, Bill Nighy gives one of the most subtle and funny performances of his career. As soon as Jean leaves the bathroom, Douglas enters and as he turns to close the door, Nighy does the most simple raising of an eyebrow as he glances at the camera. It is the closest The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel gets to a fart joke and Nighy sells it in a very funny way.

But Nighy is problematically underused through much of the rest of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In one key scene where Douglas, Graham and Evelyn go to follow up on a lead for Graham’s search for his lost love, Douglas’s presence is inexplicable. Douglas and Graham have had almost no interaction before that and as the three walk down the street, all I could think was, “They needed this shot with Bill Nighy for the promos.” It is, honestly, that out of place; the lead up to one of the most powerful scenes in the film feels like an advertisement playing off the star power of Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench and Bill Nighy, down to their stride. This might not have been so bad were it not for two early shots in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that feature all seven of the esteemed actors for what is undoubtedly a banner poster in some country (I can picture it slathered on the subway stations of London, actually). In short, despite my love of Bill Nighy, there are a few moments where Douglas seems much more like the genial, goofy, off-screen Bill Nighy that I’ve seen on talk shows and the like. In other words, this is not Nighy’s best-ever performance, despite his ability to emote without saying a word!

Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson are characteristically wonderful in their roles, though as a style aspect, the inconsistent use of voiceovers for Evelyn’s blog posts was more annoying than satisfying.

Ultimately, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel did teach me (or remind me of) something: it is perfectly possible to have a movie affect me without me liking it. I did have an emotional tug at points in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. But, ultimately, the fact that the movie got me to feel something for a few moments does not make it a good, great, or even enjoyable film. Sadly, that was my final assessment of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

For other works with Maggie Smith, please check out my reviews of:
The Harry Potter Saga
Becoming Jane
Gosford Park
A Room With A View


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movies I have reviewed!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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