Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

The film industry has long relied on the teenager/young-adult demographic to draw the bulk of its profits, and films are made to appeal in correspondence with that fact. There are, however, smaller markets that can be used to hit a box-office bullseye, a fact attested to by overwhelming financial success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful (the full on-screen title in all its absurd glory), a film about stock types with grey hair.

The film opens in a confusing melange of cross-cutting. One by one, we are introduced to seven elderly discontents who, by various circumstances, visit India to stay in the titular hotel. They are introduced in a scattershot sequence of scenes that introduce us fully to each character, inasmuch as there is hardly any character to them, and few develop clear goals or conflicts to overcome.

Our narrator Judi Dench is a newly widowed blogger. She depended on her husband and has never had to find work. But she then finds work very quickly. And, it turns out, she and her husband never much trusted or liked each other anyway. So what’s her actual problem, beyond some trite observations and platitudes on aging?

Perhaps it's her dismal writing. After the death of a major character, she blogs in voiceover, “Is it our friend we are grieving for, whose life we knew so little? Or is it our own loss that we are mourning?” If her “own loss” is something other than her friend’s death, the script never lets on. Like most of her cloying, clich├ęd, simpering narration, it leaves one asking “What the hell does that mean?” The answer: “nothing, really.”

The other six are worse. Tom Wilkinson vies for the most dramatic interest (i.e. “any”) as a closeted gay high court judge, but his subplot is given more exposition than action, and is over and done with in a hurry. Ronald Pickup wants adventure and sex but is bad at pickups (heh). Celia Imrie also wants adventure and sex but is bad at pickups. Maggie Smith is a crusty, unpleasant racist who is adverse to the unfamiliar. Penelope Wilton is a crusty, unpleasant woman who is adverse to the unfamiliar, but not overtly racist. Bill Nighy is Penelope Wilton’s husband.

You may have noticed I referred to all these characters by their actors’ names. That’s indicative of the lifting that the actors have to do here, holding onto their paper-thin non-problems and occasional subtext-less speechifying by the skin of their charisma. The truth is that I don’t remember the characters’ names, and I don’t care.

This is what happens when you fill in the gaping cracks of a script with honey: it doesn’t hold together. At the end of all the opening sequence's character introductions, the seven principles — who do not know each other — wind up sitting next to each other, all in a row, at the departure bay of an airport. The point of the shot, I gather, is to reveal to us that these seven seemingly separate stories are in fact connected. But the enormous contrivance of these seven strangers, who just happen to be heading to the same hotel, just happen to be taking the same flight to get there, and just happen to sit all in a goddamn row — it’s bullshit. To introduce these characters’ separate plotlines, and then solve the problem of “How do they all meet?” with “They all 
just sit next to each other” — it’s lazy, lazy writing.

Lazy not only structurally, but politically as well: the Marigold guests’ stay in India is explicitly foregrounded as a metaphor for their growing old, because being old is different and India is also different. 
The patronizing treatment and descriptions of India are obvious Orientalism, wherein the most facile impressions of a culture are treated as complex and profound.

The whole film is just a cynical transplant of standard feel-good filmmaking to a relatively untapped demographic. None of the characters’ stories hold any surprises. They all get stock conclusions with stock observations of a stock world. Even the film’s genuine moments of wit fail, because biting one-liners tend to work better when they come from the mouths of real people.

If you still think that the movie genuinely has its demographic audience’s feelings and interests at heart, consider this. The climax of the film revolves around a 21-year-old Dev Patel squaring off with his mother over his forbidden intentions to marry his girlfriend. This subplot exists only to satisfy some corner of that gold-gilded young-adult market; despite its key dramatic placement, it has nothing to do with the film’s ostensible central theme: the plight of the elderly. 

Films like this year’s Amour prove that that plight can be tackled with grace, intelligence, and originality. Perhaps The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel could have done so if it had whittled away its unnecessary characters, dispensed with its sub-Hallmark reveries, and taken its conflicts and setting seriously. But then, I suppose, there would be no Best Exotic Marigold Hotel left at all.


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