'Best Exotic Marigold Hotel': Time to Check Out
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
A friend recently dined at the home of a much-beloved older couple he hadn't seen in a while. The male half is in his early 90s; the female is in her late 80s. While he was delighted to see them, he, a guy in his 30s, also came away more than a little terrified. "The main theme of their conversation," he told me, "was how awful it was to be old, and how nothing they had been told about it in any way prepared them for how awful it is." Words to give one pause, to be sure.
As there's not much marketability in conveying to the world that old age is carrion, as an old Italian phrase has it, senior fictions of both the literary and cinematic variety concentrate on the idea of old age as a time of new beginnings. And hence, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," in which a predictably (some would say consolingly) motley group of British pensioners, or whatever they are, wind up savoring the pleasures and dealing with the challenges of a senior residence in farthest Jaipur.
"Wha?" you may ask. But, yes, the young feisty dreamer (of course) in charge of the titular joint proposes to "outsource old age" in the same way India has outsourced so much more of the West's can't-be-bothered services. Of course the feisty young dreamer is taking over the beloved but now rundown hotel from his late feisty dreamer dad, and his stolid mom disapproves, not just of this whole scheme but also of his girlfriend.
If that has a whiff of the familiar, check out the British characters: Judi Dench's helpless widow, whom we first meet as she struggles to understand how to work a computer (old person at a computer -- it's funny! Until it's not, 'cause she's a widow, aw ...); Tom Wilkinson's reserved retiree who's returning to India to come to terms with a love, and a self, he left behind a lifetime ago; Ronald Pickup's randy would-be ladies' man; Celia Imrie's serial divorcee on the semi-prowl; Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton's bickering couple now having to confront just why they've been together all these years; and Maggie Smith's bigoted, physically incapacitated domestic-put-out-to-pasture. If I were to ask you to guess, for example, which British character would wind up empathizing most with the Indian dreamer in charge of the hotel to the extent of materially assisting him in no small way, I bet you could nail it in one try, two tops.
It's that kind of movie. When not pivoting on an almost imperially predetermined plot point, it's doling out dollops of the most conventional wisdom imaginable along carpe diem and live-and-let-live lines, with of course carpe diem getting a lot of emphasis, as many of these folks don't have many diems left to carpe, if you know what I'm saying, and I think you do.
It's pretty common for such utterly pat material (the script is by Ol Parker from a novel by Deborah Moggach, and the competent, characterless direction is by John Madden of "Shakespeare in Love" fame) to be redeemed or at least made tolerable by a cast of first-rate performers. But as well as Dench, Wilkinson, Night and Smith acquit themselves (everyone does his or her level best, but these performers were my favorites), their efforts didn't bring the movie to life (and I'm not certain they could). They merely made the time pass more pleasantly than it might have, all the while reminding us, although not in a way that the movie might have intended, that time is a very precious commodity indeed.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.