Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Age Before Beauty

With Marvel's The Avengers both being the best film of the year AND making money hand over fist, it's difficult not to be swayed into seeing the superhero extravaganza a fourth time (I will, but only after I've met my writing obligations). This is especially true since there really isn't all that much out there on the big screen that I WANT to see. I'm not particularly jazzed to watch Think Like a Man, and The Lucky One is no longer playing at a theater near me. Besides the mediocre The Dictator and Battleship, the only other major release this past weekend was What to Expect When You're Expecting, and I'm pretty much done with half-assed book adaptations for the time being. That doesn't leave a whole lot of options on the table.

The most appealing of what was left turned out to be The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, directed by Shakespeare in Love's John Madden and starring a bevy of veteran British talent, including Dame Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson. Released the same weekend as the favorite Avengers, albeit in a limited capacity, the film has been receiving some strong support overseas and even among our local theaters, where it has done quite well in the face of the Summer Blockbuster season. It will finally getting a wide release this Memorial Day weekend, but will the story of a groups of relocated older folk really be worth your time?

It's like a "who's who" of elderly Brits.
Based on Deborah Moggach's 2004 novel These Foolish Things, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel looks at seven retirees who have journeyed to India to start the next phase of their lives. Evelyn (Dench) is a widower whose husband's debts forced her to sell her home after his death. Graham (Wilkinson) recently left his life as a high court judge to return to the country in which he grew up. Douglas (Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) are a married couple who lost their life savings investing in their daughter's failed Internet startup, with this hotel being all that they can afford. Madge (Celia Imrie) wants to get away from her family so that she can find her next husband. Norman (Ronald Pickup) is an aging lothario who has become lonely, searching for new experiences. And Muriel (Smith) has come to expedite the much-needed surgery for her hip, despite her reservations and generally racist views. They've arrived at the retirement hotel looking for new lives, but owner Sonny (Dev Patel) has his own problems: he's having difficulty getting funding for the building's renovations, and between that and his mother's dislike of his girlfriend Sunaina (Tena Desae), nothing seems to be going right for the young entrepeneur; he may soon be forced to close down the hotel that belonged to his family and has become his dream, forever.

It's okay, Dev; we forgive you for The Last Airbender.
While you might think that watching a film about older people accepting the difficulties of change isn't your idea of fun, I argue that should you give this title a chance; you might be surprised with how good this thing actually is. The story at times does feel a bit unbalanced, as juggling the adventures of eight different characters proves to be slightly too much for even an experienced director as Madden, whose 2011 title The Debt had similar challenges. His way of solving the problem, by relegating some of the characters to the background, works enough so that we can focus on the film's main plot points, while still allowing for side jaunts with others when the time is right. For this reason pacing is also not an issue; Madden does such a good job telling these characters' stories and showing us the discrimination that society shows towards its elders that we can forgive the occasionally overwrought cliche, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel never gets stale while we watch, waiting with eagerness to see what happens next..

Happy to see M back on the big screen!
It's not only the work of Madden, but the excellent cast he's put together that really makes this film stand out from your typical geriatric comedies. Per usual the film is carried by the amazing talent and star power of Dench, Wilkinson and Nighy, the last of whom displays such an amazing subtlety in his performance that if you couldn't plainly see that it was him, you'd be forgiven for confusing him with someone else. Wilton is perfectly cast as a woman unswayed by the charm and humanity of India, and she plays such a perfect foil for those who cannot help but be swayed by the experience. I would have loved to see more of Imrie and Pickup, who share some comic relief but otherwise are only observers in the grand scheme of things. Pickup especially charms, with his character's irreverent outlook on life and the choicest, funniest lines of the cast. Patel still charms, though at times his performance is a bit over-the-top to the point of absurdity. Fortunately, that appears to be more the script's fault than his, and the young actor still has a good career ahead of him, should he take it. It's Maggie Smith though who steals the show. I was not expecting to like the character of Murial, a racist, bitter old woman who has no redeeming qualities at the film's start. Still, I shouldn't have doubted the Downton Abbey star and two-time Academy Award winner, who by the end was by far my favorite character in movie chock full of great ones.

Smith: Another Academy Award in her near-future?
It's that great sense of character that makes The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel an absolutely wonderful film, and places it at #5 for 2012. While it certainly could have been more complex, and leaves a few loose ends dangling in the breeze, this was a movie that loves its characters enough to treat them with the respect they so richly deserve. I know The Avengers and the typical Summer smashes won't appeal to everybody, or at least not everybody will want to see it more than once. For those people, this film presents an excellent alternative, a feel-good film about aging that hits all the right notes, but not in a predictable and old-fashioned way. Maybe not a must-see, but certainly better than you might have been expecting.

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