The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Madden, 2011)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

I’ve often said I would pay to watch Tom Wilkinson or Judi Dench read the phone book. I’m just not sure how I feel about watching them remake The Breakfast Club.

That’s probably not entirely fair to John Hughes’s film, which at least celebrates adolescence by using adolescents and is somewhat self-consciously superficial to make a point about how superficial its subjects are.

Marigold is a genre piece masquerading as a serious drama. The formula is to get a a bunch of people who don’t know one another together in one place–in this case a run-down hotel in India–and see how the relationships between them develop. The hardest part of the relationship comedy is the “meet cute,” so the isolated setting genre is an understandable staple of writers and audiences who care less about plot than they do about allowing characters to interact and develop.

So, the characters…

Judi Dench plays Judi Dench, an elite British actress passing as an impoverished widow who is forced to seek out in India everything she never had or couldn’t find–cheap lodgings, employment, self-respect–at home.

Wilkinson plays Tom Wilkinson, a gentleman actor of a certain age who has flowered and prospered in old age playing a desperate, emotionally stunted member of the legal profession who sees in India all the roads not traveled.

Dev Patel plays Geoffrey Rush, an eccentric but optimistic manager who insists that everything will work out in the end even though Will Shakespeare hasn’t written a play in ages and his mom is skeptical about his ability to manage the Best Exotic Globe Theater.

They are joined by Maggie Smith as Maggie Smith, the consummate professional biding time in the bitter role as a woman whose physical incapacity is the trappings, rather than a symbol, of an alleged emotional crippled-ness that has a hard time lasting far enough into the movie to make her eventual layers a surprise. Smith is awesome, of course, but you know something is coming with her character because she is too big a star to be consigned to playing a character that one-note, even in an ensemble melodrama.

That honor goes to Penelope Wilton who plays a harpy so relentlessly unpleasant that one almost gets mad at her husband (Bill Nighy doing a wonderful turn as Bill Nighy in an “oh, it’s that guy” role) for taking over an hour to tell her off even though his reluctance to do so is the way we know he is really a decent guy and the victim in the dysfunctional relationship.

All this snark may make the film sound worse than I thought it was. It’s not bad, actually. It’s just that with so much talent on board, its mediocrity hurts worse than some films’ actual badness. The India we see on screen is at odds with the exposition of it. The residents will make jokes about naming the various cockroaches in their room, but every close up shows permed hair and pressed slacks. The culmination is less an organic conclusion of a sequence of events than a sudden change of heart prompted by a need to bring things to a close. Best Exotic is an easy film to slam but a hard one to actually dislike. Its heart is in the right place. Like its namesake, it is an okay place to visit even if I would not want to spend extended time there.

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