Alex: It looked terrible. It looked sun-kissed and sentimental. It looked like a bunch of uptight English prunes on a reluctant journey that ultimately reminds them of life’s joys. It looked racist. It looked like this year’s The Help. It had to be a turkey.
But I loved The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Again and again I underestimated it. I thought it was going to give its token brown characters some token emotional moments, but in fact the story of Dev Patel — who runs the titular hotel — and his girlfriend is complicated and has many concerned parties and far-reaching consequences. I thought it was going to let us laugh at its fish-out-of-water heroes, but in fact it affords its characters complete dignity (which is their struggle, anyway — i.e. to preserve their dignity). I thought it was going to sentimentalize an “exotic” journey and thus sanctify the idea of home, but in fact several of these characters have to redefine “home” — and I was (happily) surprised that a troubled marriage dissolves rather than repairing itself.
The Judi Dench character is blogging about the trip, and I thought we were going to get schtick about how she stumbles when trying to speak the language of the internets, but in fact the blog entries become voice-over narration that both serves the storytelling — another surprise: the movie takes place over two months, it’s not an eight-day jaunt — and allows for some beautifully written reflection. Again and again I found myself appreciating the word-by-word writing in this movie. (The script is by Ol Parker.) The one-liners aren’t cheap or easy; the advice from elders to youngers about life and love is never hackneyed but, rather, thought through and slightly verbose in that way that indicates someone trying to articulate something as opposed to deploying platitutdes.
I thought it was going to be lit with dusty streams of golden sunlight and scored by sitar and tabla, but both the cinematography (by Ben Davis) and the score (by Thomas Newman) are restrained and unpretentious and don’t exoticize what they observe. (The deeper I got into the movie the more I appreciated the joke of its title.)
I thought that when Tom Wilkinson reunites with his male lover we’d have a tawdry scene in which the lover’s wife cries and screams and throws things. But in fact, she’s known all along about her husband and is gratified by Wilkinson’s return.
Two things I didn’t like and that do fit the cliches of this sort of movie:
I wish the gay character didn’t die wistfully and alone, having made a kind of peace. (Wilkinson is keeping a big secret about his health but his terminal condition is a cheap motivator for his quitting his career and making this journey. What if he just quit his career and made the journey?)
And while I love the Maggie Smith storyline — who she was in her former life and whom she bonds with in this one are unexpected and very touching — I wish she wouldn’t be the one who saves the hotel when it’s in its worst crisis. It smacks of inept brown people being rescued by a cool-headed and educated white person. (But I’m being a little unfair; Dev Patel, whom Maggie rescues with her accounting acumen, is consistently a showman, a pitchman, who is terrible with numbers and money. He does need to be rescued, he does need a partner.)
I was a little surprised that the Academy gave no love to this movie — it seemed the early-year prestige film that the voters would be proud of themselves for remembering and honoring — but then I actually saw the movie. Now I see why it’s not an Oscar contender: It’s too good.
Aaron: Oh, Jesus Christ walking to the ocean in sandals while fasting! I mean, what the fuck am I supposed to say to this?! Pillorying you for such a dumb opinion makes me a dick and a spoil sport and some sort of intellectual highbrow dilettante (I am all those things, thankyouverymuch!), so I’ll try to avoid being too mean.
I will say it’s amazing how your squish and squirm your way through your laudatory post. Basically you praise the film for being not stupid and not offensive with the thinnest evidence. Oh! The marriage of two people who loathe one another actually ends! That’s SOOOOOO bold! No—that’s a fucking small hat tip (the only one) to unsentimentalized life. Go watch In a Lonely Place. It’s brutal and doesn’t involve an exploited group of Orientals (hat tip to Edward Said). “Several of these characters have to redefine ‘home'”. Uh, that’s the most banal Hollywood trope ever. Take just about any horribly middlebrow domestic melodrama from the 1940s through 1960s and you’ll see that exact same notion… but they won’t idealize brown people from the Subcontinent.
Oh wait—here’s a chance for me to bring up Renoir’s The River (Jean, I’m really, really sorry that I have to bring up your masterpiece in the context of such dreck. Really, don’t blame me; Alex is making me do it). That is a film about the “redefining of ‘home'” and how there are similarities across cultures and skin colors (what Renoir once described as the “horizontality of the world”) and how things like miscegeny is a reality on the ground in subaltern cultures and how there’s a natural world (rivers) that supersedes everything in the human world. It sounds a lot like the Madden (I almost wrote “the Hooper,” but then realized this was not a hackjob by Tom, but one by the man who brought us Shakespeare in Love), but it doesn’t insult the viewer and treat us like we watch movies at a third-grade level. It doesn’t make something **important** and sentimental out of a white boy dying after getting bitten by a viper; it just shows that in the natural flow of time and the world, shit happens and you have to deal with it. (You’re right about Wilkinson dying being dumb; but not because it’s a dumb cliché for the fag to die. It’s a stupid inclusion here because it’s a HOTEL THAT CATERS TO OLD PEOPLE, so they should have a death every other day.)
You’re wrong about the cinematography in this film. It’s not restrained; it’s garbage and shoves pictures of beautiful environmental things and places along with **beautiful flowing colorful silks** in our faces. The whole thing is soft-focused and **dramatically lighted** so we will sit back and say “it’s beautiful,” when in fact it’s just pictures of beautiful places that are almost impossible to mess up. Like grilled cheese.
I mean, Jesus—what the hell?! To say that Judi Dench’s blogging is some special thing because it serves as diegetic voice-over narration, is like praising Madden for using a score. Who gives a hell? First, I couldn’t imagine this movie not having a narrator telling me exactly what one character feels and thinks in a suffocatingly banal way (because people like you, who appreciate mindless sentimentality, need explicit emotional instruction); second, I think the blog/journal-as-narrator idea is such a cliché I will invoke Doogie Howser, M.D. to say, “it’s been done before, Vinnie.”
Mostly the film is very proud of itself for being above the racial fray and transcending some notions of “culture” and “tradition” and “post-colonialism.” The Dev Patel romance thread is ridiculous and annoying (really, any romance of the “mom/dad-doesn’t-want-son-to-marry-that-woman” variety is not worth discussion). I was most upset that one of them didn’t try to get a cheap experimental surgery from an Indian hospital… though I guess you have to be in the American healthcare system to do that (NHS is probably great for olds).
This film reminds me of that Ryan Murphy magnum opus Eat Pray Love, which I previously described as “white people using the developing world as their toilet.” I would say the same here, though it’s more “white people using the developing world as their sanitary diaper bin.”