Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, directed by John Madden from a novel by Deborah Moggach, arrives with a pedigreed cast that has already secured the film several weeks' run at your local multiplex. It's a pleasure to watch Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and a troupe of top-drawer British actors bounce around a well-photographed India in a story of preparing for the last act of one's life, but the paths each character travels lack enough of life's messiness and surprise. The film builds to a series of emotional unburdenings, albeit very well-acted ones, that can be seen coming from a distance.

We're introduced to the travelers in a series of opening vignettes. Newly widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench)  is at a loss after selling her flat to pay off her late husband's debt. Muriel (Maggie Smith) needs hip surgery but can only afford to have her operation "outsourced" to India, which doesn't suit her latent racist side. Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) are a married couple who don't like each other but are too preoccupied with financial concerns to acknowledge it. The two hotel guests with the most active libidos are Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Madge (Celia Imrie), who each strike out for India with the hope of finding companionship. The most surprising guest is Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a gay judge determined to pick up a too long ignored strand of his life. Each of these people is drawn to India by the ambition of Sonny (Dev Patel), an young Indian entrepreneur whose skill with Photoshop conceals the fact that his elaborately named hotel is a ramshackle mess. John Madden directed Judi Dench to an Oscar in Shakespeare in Love, and he gets entirely different sort of work from her here. Dench sheds the armor she sometimes seems to wear in period roles and pulls from a well of deep sadness that's matched by Nighy's Douglas, a man whose dry humor has become a reflexive defensive mechanism.

Hotel isn't shy about diving into the sounds and colors of India, and at moments even makes it seems as overwhelming as it might to a group of foreign travelers in late middle age. Yet even an unfamiliar location can't disguise the degree to which the screenplay (by Ol Parker) fulfills the needs of the characters so squarely. The guest who needs an outlet for her time finds one. The guest who needs to get something out of connecting with an Indian does so. Wilkinson's Graham has the most unusual reasons for coming to India but his journey too is rounded off neatly. There's even a funeral scene, editorialized upon by Dench's voice-over, that doesn't come close to the emotional power of the funeral in The Darjeeling Limited. Some time is devoted to the struggles of Sonny to keep the hotel afloat while wooing his girlfriend (Tena Desae) and dealing with family pressure, but the collision of modernity and tradition in India isn't depicted so much as used as a talking point. While The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a satisfying enough way to kill an afternoon, the film badly needs a wilder streak or at least to let one of its characters go solve the mysteries of India that it leaves unexplored.

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