Friday, May 4, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Hotel Discounts Await Viewers Of This Best Exotic Mess Hall

Tena Desae as Sunaina and Dev Patel as Sonny in John Madden's "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel". 
Fox Searchlight Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, May 4
, 2012

So what do you do with a cast of fine British actors headlined by the good Dame Judi Dench?  You ill-advisedly stick them in a film that uneasily mixes comedy and drama with Ms. Dench's narration in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", based on the Deborah Moggach novel These Foolish Things.

Six senior-aged Brits -- a heartbroken gay man, a bickering married couple, a widow, a single woman, a licentious eccentric and a bitter racist find themselves on a trip out of cloudy, gloomy England to a retirement center in India where relaxation and a slowdown life await.  Of course it won't be easy, and John Madden's comedy-drama often feels too caricatured and wooden to be alive.  The style is pedestrian, the outcome predictable.  (I haven't read the book, which is said to be quite good, but if true, the results on screen are certainly lost in translation.)  Still, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", for all of its varying faults, is several steps up from "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen", which tried to be charming, funny and dramatic but succeeded at failing on all levels.  At least in some measure, "Best Exotic" tries and does produce a few funny moments of dialogue.

The introduction of the film's characters takes a full five minutes, and we will be sure of one thing: along the way someone will be left behind, or heaven forbid, keel over.  In a film about aging, recapturing youth, and taking on new spontaneous adventures in life's twilight years someone is sure not to keep up with the blinding, zig-zag pace of this sometimes vibrant, colorful sojourn. 

Mr. Madden, who directed Ms. Dench to an Oscar in "Shakespeare In Love", again spotlights the Dame, and her performance as the widow Evelyn is rich, poignant and open-hearted.  Amidst the clowning (Dev Patel as Sonny, the invigorated and hyper-caricatured Marigold hotel manager) and Ronald Pickup as a sex-starved Lothario Sr. there's a heartfelt bit of work by Bill Nighy (Ms. Dench's co-star and antagonist in "Notes On A Scandal") as Douglas, a man suffocated by the naggings of his miserable wife (Penelope Wilton).  Mr. Nighy does better than almost every actor around in conveying a sense of despair, failure, longing and exasperation in a character, and he and Ms. Dench are the sole reasons to watch Mr. Madden's film if at all.

That said, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" suffers from a lack of appreciable dimension and substance in its characters, and the approach to its storytelling is scattershot and unfocused.  There are multiple stories that Mr. Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker try to juggle in even measure.  At times the stories are engaging and smartly acted but mostly -- especially in the film's second hour -- they become exhausting, falling prey to the trappings of expediency, with needless twists and an introduction of a new character late on that feels tacked on.

Mr. Madden's directing authorship was most recently seen last August on American movie screens in "The Debt", another disappointing film that suffered from issues with length and the miscasting of both Sam Worthington and Tom Wilkinson, the latter of whom appears in "Marigold".  Here, Mr. Wilkinson looks as if he's in a different film from his fellow cast members, his Graham a pondering, agonized gay man searching for precious memories of the past.  Graham offers up a line that isn't as funny as it was perhaps intended to be: "these days I'm gay in theory rather than in practice."  The self-referencing is spoken with such dreariness and compromise that the resulting laugh is stifled rather than genuine. 

For all Graham's thoughtfulness and sincerity the line he speaks undoes his integrity as a gay man.  (I know the film is a comedy but when is the last time you heard a gay man say that he was gay in theory???)  In Graham as a character there's a sense of manipulation and vacancy.  He seems too smart and assured to be as confused as his character is.  A retired judge, Graham initially looks a happy and content man but the opposite is true.  The canvas Graham operates on seems to sink beneath him; there's a sense that he's on his own private island just waiting to be flooded in sorrow.

Even with the film's waywardness the actors do well, including the engaging Mr. Patel, but Maggie Smith's one-note racist character's third-act transformation just didn't work.  Ms. Smith was good in the role but Mr. Parker's screenplay has her silent epiphany occur in the blink of an eye and for reasons that just weren't convincing.  Lack of conviction are the best words to sum up "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", a tedious one-night's stay at your local multiplex.

With: Lucy Robinson, Celia Imrie.

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual content and language.  The film's running time is two hours and four minutes.

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