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The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: An Unappreciation

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, now playing in a fetid but colorful slum near you, proves one of two things: either Britain’s great older actors are so desperate for a role that they will grab any script, or it is impossible to make an interesting movie about people over 50.

Poster for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, showing photos of Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy among marigoldsFox Searchlight

Let us not blame the cast, which is full of distinguished veterans. Oscar-winner Judi Dench! Two-time Oscar-winner Maggie Smith! Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson! Golden Globe winner Bill Nighy! Phoenix Film Critics Society Award winner Dev Patel! And to top it off, Oscar nominee John Madden, director of the charming Mrs. Brown and the truly delightful (and Oscar-winning) Shakespeare In Love.

Plus, that title! “It’s The #1 Ladies Detective Agency meets Slumdog Millionaire!” It can’t miss!

Yes, it can.

The warning lights flash early. Dench, recently widowed and allegedly helpless, gets all plucky and decides she’ll move to a retirement home in India and blog about it. “You can read it on the INTERWEB!” she tells her son proudly, and please just shoot me now. That line might have been funny back when Al Gore was talking about the information superhighway, but in 2012 it makes as much sense as having her blurt out, “I’m going riding in an AUTOMO-CAR!” or “Your leftovers are in the REFRIGERBOX!” (So cute! Old people are so cute!)

At least she doesn’t say “interwebS.” That’s what passes for subtlety in this film.

Photo of Judy Dench and less famous co-star riding in a kind of motor rickashaw and smiling at IndiaFox Searchlight

Nonetheless, Judy flies to India with a handful of other not-quite-old people, lands in a rotting hotel with pigeon manure in the bedrooms, and immediately begins blogging her deeply insightful life lessons. How she gets wi-fi on her new Dell laptop when the hotel is so broken-down that the old rotary phones don’t work (a major plot point) goes carefully unexplained.

The movie is full of weird and needless gaps like that, and the dialogue has more age spots than the actors. One character says she’s so old that “I don’t buy green bananas,” while another says “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.” Do the filmmakers imagine that we’ve never heard those old lines? Or is it all supposed to show that the characters lack imagination? It’s impossible to tell.

Maybe they figured it didn’t matter. This movie is from the Trot-Out-The-Old-Warhorses-And-Let-Them-Charm-Us school of comedy, and that’s fine. It’s geritas, not veritas, I get that.

The plot certainly runs down the magic checklist: there’s a surprise death, a romance, Viagra jokes, diarrhea jokes, a gay character (who says, solemnly and repeatedly, “I’m gay”), and Judi Dench, god BLESS her, doing her warm-but-no-nonsense Judi Dench shtick.

So what goes wrong? Besides the hoary plot points and dialogue, the film just doesn’t respect its own aging goobers heroes. Quite the opposite: the veteran actor Ronald Pickup (real age 72) is made to play a bewhiskered old horndog who tries desperately to meet young women at a speed-dating session for singles in their 20s and 30s. It’s supposed to be funny, but it’s really just skeevy and humiliating. If this movie were about the young women, we’d see him as a scary old goat who might throw open his trenchcoat at any moment. But in this film we’re supposed to love him just because.

He deserves better! Attention must be paid! Ronald Pickup once played Einstein, mind you, and also George Orwell and Guiseppi Verdi. Can we not leave him a shred of human dignity?

No, we can’t. Later we see him going to a crowded clinic in India hoping to get that Viagra, giving the phony name John Smith… why? Granted, there’s a joke of sorts in there somewhere, but not one that really makes any sense. Like the INTERWEB, Viagra is really a gag item from the Clinton administration.

Photo of Dev Patel riding a motorcycle with his smiling girlfriend clinging to the back. In India!Fox Searchlight

Dev Patel is given a truly thankless role as the incompetent young liar dreamer who runs this terrible hotel. His stilted pidgin-English “I am welcoming you most grandly to this glorious hotel” dialogue would embarrass Apu on The Simpsons. (Or for that matter, Stepin Fetchit.) Also, you’ll never believe it, but he wants to marry for love, but his proper Indian mother wants an arranged marriage! Because India, you see, is undergoing cultural change.

Good thing those 1.2 billion helpless people of India have a half-dozen old white Brits to wade in and teach them how to hold a cricket bat and make a telemarketing call and run a business. And hey, nothing old hat about having these westerners be Deeply Touched by the incredible sights and sounds and spirituality of India. It’s all so amazing! As long as you “wear a clothespin on your nose,” as Nighy is forced to tell Dench, possibly by the director holding a gun on him off-camera.

The ending is deus ex metamucil. Maggie Smith starts out the film as a dreadful and quivering racist who fears and abhors people with dark skin of any kind, and says so loudly. But in the last reel she somehow becomes a mix of Mother Teresa and Conrad Hilton, stepping in to analyze account books and charm locals and make deals while spouting feel-good blather about how when plans fall apart, “sometimes what happens instead is the good stuff.”

The good stuff, yes. Every star in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was assigned one such maudlin nugget of wisdom. All managed to keep a straight face while delivering their appointed nugget. That’s why you need old pros for a movie like this.

[2015 update: Oh dear heavens, there’s a sequel.]

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