Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)

Since most Americans probably only see movies set in India once a year or so, the Jaipur locale made this script seem fresher than it otherwise was. I am surprised it garnered so many different nominations (SAG, Golden Globes, etc.) because it was quite predictable.

Seven retirees who have run out of funds or opportunities in the UK see a brochure for an idyllic retirement community in Jaipur. It's not only enchanting, but fits their budget, so each with their own motivations packs up his/her life and heads out on a new adventure, meeting at the airport.

Evelyn (Judi Dench) is a new widow. Her husband has left her in enormous debt. He handled all of the finances and decisions and didn't share their impending doom with her, but she didn't ask him either. She married young, handed her free will over to him and is now regretting that choice. Even when she sells their home, she will barely have enough money to live on. Her son tells her that she will live with him. He's already talked it over with wife Polly, before, of course, consulting his mother at all. She decides she's had enough of that.

We meet her when she's on the telephone talking to the cable company. She wants to change or cancel service, but can't do so without her husband's password. Her name is not on the account. Her husband is dead, she says. The customer service rep repeats that they can't help her without the account information. Of course, this frustrates her for several reason: the bad service certainly. They're reading a script and don't expect you to respond like a human being. When you do they have no reaction. The apathy stokes her fresh grief. The phone call reminds me of my own father's death. He'd had a stroke and I was getting a caregiver and moving him out from Illinois to live with me. Insurance fitted my home out with a hoya lift, oxygen tanks, a hospital and wheelchair ahead of his arrival. I just had to buy a twin bed for caregiver. He died on the date when he was supposed to make the trip and I had to have the health care providers pick up all the unused equipment. I went on the Sears website to cancel delivery of the bed. One box asked me for the reason: price? not the product I thought I wanted? I said it was because my father died. To my surprise Sears sent me an email confirming the cancellation and also expressed sympathy for my lost. It was the last thing I'd expected. I appreciated the anonymous kindness and it made me cry, just as Evelyn does when she fails to get the same.

Her son takes her to the airport, remarking that he doesn't think she'll make it. She's never done anything alone. Of course that makes Evelyn more determined than ever to succeed and immediately the audience knows she will.

Maggie Smith plays Mrs. Donnelly, an inveterate racist. As the movie progresses we learn that she's a retired housekeeper. She needs hip surgery but shuns aid from any of the minority doctors at the hospital. Of course, India would be the last place she'd want to have the work done, but it's the cheapest and, ever paranoid, she embarks on her journey, wishing it was already over.

Madge is a golddigger, confident in her own sex appeal, much like Blanche on The Golden Girls. Norman is a skirt chaser. Although he generally likes them younger, you'd think these two were fated to end up together. That they don't is one of the film's few surprises.

Jean and Douglas are a wearily married couple. He invested in their daughter's business and it wiped out most of their savings. I don't know where Jean was when he did it. I don't know if she was fully apprised of his financial decisions, but it would be unlike her not to complain that she wasn't. We don't get their entire backstory, but as judgmental as she is, I don't think she let him make all of the decisions as Evelyn did. Whether both are responsible for their depleted savings or not, she blames him entirely and he expects as much.

They can afford a small assisted living apartment and we meet them as they are touring the place. When Jean rebukes the guide as he points out the place's very modest features, I actually agree with her. There's a convenient pull cord on the wall, in case you fall and need outside assistance. But what if she lacks the foresight to fall in the right place, Jean wants to know. What if she's not near the wall when she face plants. How can she pull the cord then? The rails on the walls that will help them maneuver about the room when they're order -- how do they help if you want to walk ACROSS the room, rather than just around the parameter? Her husband is embarrassed by her rude questions, but to me the outburst is not an irrational response to the patronizing sales pitch. Perhaps my cynicism is misplaced. All marketing is designed to create a need, whether it really exists or not. Why is it more offensive when that need is promoted to seniors than to anyone else? Both babies and the elderly may need diapers. If a Depends ad makes me uncomfortable than a Pampers ad does, is the problem with me rather than the seller? Why does it seem that one is offering a service, while the other is "taking advantage?" Well, even if Jean's explosion had more to do with her own insecurities than the sales agent's, I cheered her on. It was only after getting to know her better that I realized her foul mood was a permanent one, not spurred by justified irritation or fear for the future.

Tom Wilkinson, Graham, is a judge. He seems to be the only one who isn't grounded by financial straits. He was attending someone else's retirement party when he was suddenly seized by an unexplained spasm and announces that the day has come. Apparently, it was one he'd always been waiting for, putting off, but always planning. It was time for him to go too.

Once they finally complete their perilous journey into Jaipur through the congested streets, crazy drivers in even crazier vehicles, they arrive at their hotel to find that it isn't quite the way it looked in the brochure. It's a dilapidated eyesore, old and mostly unmanned. The owner is young Sonny. He's a smoother talker than businessman. The hotel was handed down by his father and he lacks the funds to realize his dreams of renovation. He's trying to woo lenders, but unless he can swindle them as he did his new (and only) seven guests, he appears to be out of luck.

Graham grew up in India and takes the hotel in stride, seeing the beauty around him, rather than the decay. Norman and Douglas are also happy to make due, welcoming the fresh start. For Evelyn it seems more like a first beginning than a new one. Madge is eager to scope out the rich men in the area. Jean is, of course, livid. She doesn't want to experience the food, the city or the people. She's loathe to leave her room.

Evelyn goes job-hunting. She inquires at a sales agency, but when she sees all of the employees cubicled there are young, she fears she doesn't have a chance. She is about to apologize for wasting the manager's time when he tells her he could use her services as a consultant. She might help them mold their sales strategy to the customer. Presumably, he wants her to Anglicize his approach to attract non-Indians. Evelyn is thrilled to be earning her own way for the first time. She befriends the owner's sister who is a sales agent at the company and, it turns out, Sonny's girlfriend. His mother, naturally, does not think Sunaina is good enough for her third son and wants to put him in an arranged marriage. Theirs is the movie's most soap operatic plot all and nearly destroys what little poignant credibility the film otherwise possessed.

As the days pass, the Marigold guests develop friendships. Graham reveals that when his family was stationed in India he grew up and fell in love with another young man. When they were found together a scandal erupted. Graham's family simply left the country and he was able to build a life unscathed, but he never knew what became of his lover. It must have been 40 years ago when India was even less tolerant of homosexuality than it is now. Not only his lover, but the youth's entire family was spurned. They lost their jobs, had to relocate. Graham never knew what became of him. He promised himself that he'd return and find out, but then he never did. "Until now," Evelyn reminds him, soothing his guilt.

Graham makes a pilgrimage to the records office each day to try to find out what became of his erstwhile partnership, but can't make any headway through the bureaucracy. Jean latches on to Graham as her dream man. A symbol of everything she'd aspired to in life, but been disappointed in. Ignoring her husband, unless it's to scorn him, she hopelessly stalks Graham looking for an attempt to charm. He wonders why she won't experience her surroundings. Why keep herself locked up. It's clear to us that sexual orientation aside, he has little in common with Jean. Why does she seek the company of someone so open-minded when hers is so closed? When Graham tells her he's gay, her hurt makes their circumstances, already oppressive, intolerable for her. She needs to escape.

Douglas, on the other hand, is settling in nicely, enjoying Evelyn's pleasant, interested manner.

Madge haunts the local country club, trying to pass herself off as a blue blood (Princess Margaret to be exact). She doesn't have much success on her own, but she helps fix Norman up with a woman who shrugs him off at first, but responds when he abandons the lecherous act and just admits that he's lonely. She is too.

Mrs. Donnelly undergoes her hip surgery, but must remain at the hotel until she's fully recovered. She wants as little to do with anything foreign as possible and hopes to live off of imported hobnobs, rather than the local cuisine. The girl who serves her each day doesn't understand English but mistakes Mrs. Donnelly's cleaning instructions for words of friendship. Using the doctor as translator, she invites Mrs. Donnelly to her home. Donnelly doesn't quite go willingly. The doctor has wheeled her there before she knows the destination. Surrounded by the girls entire family, Donnelly is silent at first, but then, perhaps spurred by their inability to fully understand without translation, she recalls how she was fired from the job she held for many years. She raised the family as her own, managed their finances, loved the children. But they replaced her and said her services were no longer needed. Although her hosts don't know what she has said and the doctor feels too awkward to translate for them, they can sense that they were given TMI. There's an uncomfortable silence when, alarmed by the boys trying to upright her wheelchair outside, Donnelly yells at them to get off, her xenophobia raging. The girl who invited her is hurt. Donnelly feels guilty and after that she starts to reach out to those around her. Maybe having been caused pain, changes her view after she's inflicted it.

Donnelly is not only softer than before, but nosier. She takes an interest in the lives of the other guests, observing their fights and affairs in silence.

To his surprise, the records office does find Graham's lost love, Manoj. He goes to the address (with Evelyn and Douglas in tow) not knowing what he'll find or how he'll be received. The woman who opens the door recognizes his name immediately. She's his Manoj's wife. Heart quickening Graham thanks her and turns away to leave, but she calls to someone down below. Her husband. An older man turns and he and Graham recognize each other. Graham walks towards Manoj afraid, but when he gets there he is pulled into a hug and immersed in joy and relief. Evelyn is drawn to the woman in the doorway. The wife. What must she be thinking, Evelyn wonders.

Graham and his friend talk all night, sharing their lives. Back at the hotel, Graham relates that Manoj built a family over the decades and was very happy, but never stopped thinking of Graham. Never stopped loving him. All of this time Graham thought he'd destroyed a man, but it turns out he was the one who'd been in prison all along. He watches a large swan leap into the air, spread its wings and float away, as we follow the bird's flight, Graham takes his last breath below.

The Marigold inhabitants attend his funeral, arranged by his Manoj. It will follow traditional Indian custom. The body is placed on a pyre and must be burned completely between dawn and sundown. When only ashes remain, Graham's beloved sprinkle them in the water. Before returning home Evelyn makes a trek to speak to Manoj's wife, to find out how she feels. This is rather presumptuous to me, because Evelyn seems moved by curiosity more than compassion. But she leaves envious. Manoj's wife knew everything. She always had. There were no secrets between her and her husband. Evelyn feels that they had a real marriage. They had honesty. Sexual compatibility means nothing when trust and sharing is absent. She feels she failed her husband, because she knew nothing. He didn't share his decisions with her, but that means she was relieved of his burdens as well. If she had asked and demanded answers, maybe she would have grown and expanded as a person, but maybe their union would have deepened as well.

Back at the hotel, Sonny's mother catches his naked girlfriend sneaking into the bedroom for a rendezvous and tells Sonny he must have nothing more to do with her. Sonny does not defend Sunaina, a betrayal that the "happy ending" does not soften for me. Sonny's mother insists that he sell the failing hotel.

The residents take its closing as a loss of their own hopes. Feeling weak, Evelyn makes a call home to her son. Is it because she misses him or because she feels he was right, that she has been unable to make it on her own and should return where she'll be protected, if not independent.

Norman will move in with his lover. Glowing for the first time, Jean has heard from her daughter who is now a successful entrepreneur (they've only been gone 2 months, so that was quit). It seems Douglas' investment has paid off, but Jean doesn't thank her husband. She ridicules his infatuation with Evelyn (never admitting her own longing for Graham) and says they're returning home. Douglas can bear her taunts, but when she insults Evelyn he snaps and wonders when/why Jean became the hateful, unhappy person she is today. She's stunned by his revolt, but her first priority is freedom. She packs to leave, proud that she'll be turning left. That is, when she enters the airplane, she'll turn left because their tickets are in the first class cabin, for the first time. She's arrived.

Donnelly pays a visit to the lender Sonny was wooing. It turns out she was not only a nanny and housekeeper, but the family's money manager. She's got wonderful accounting skills and has proven that a profit can be made from the Marigold. She convinces the lender to fund Sonny, as long as he has proper oversight at the hotel, meaning her. Rising from her wheelchair she takes the business reins at the Marigold, while Sonny becomes the greeter, banking on his personality, rather than his wisdom.

He gains the confidence to stand up for himself, retrieves Sunaina and expresses his love. However, instead of telling his mother that he doesn't need her permission to marry the woman he loves, he stands by as an old employee shames his mother into recalling that her husband's family looked down on her too. They would have discouraged their marriage, but her husband (Sonny's father) defied them, because he was in love. The woman instantly melts seeing herself in Sunaina (major eyeroll) and then she instantly accepts her daughter-in-law to be and Sonny's right to keep his father's dream, the Marigold Hotel, alive. Now, there was some dialogue earlier where Sonny told his mother he knew she loved the hotel too, so maybe she was just in denial earlier and trying to be a pragmatic, unbending business woman, but other than a single sentence, we never got a glimpse into her heart before, so her sudden about face nearly causes whiplash.

Evelyn avoided saying goodbye to Douglas, so he leaves for the airport with Jean, but they get stuck in traffic and won't make the flight, unless they abandon their car and take a rickshaw. It can only fit one person, so Jean tells him he should stay behind. They've both realized it wasn't working a long time ago. They both deserve more. He denies it at first, but knows she's right.

He returns to the hotel, where Evelyn waits. Fast forward and they are motoring through Jaipur, Evelyn on a bike behind Douglas and Sonny and Sunaina riding through the streets together to. The two couples salute and continue through the happy milieu that is now home to all of them.

The neat, unrealistic resolution of everyone's problems make this movie impossible to recommend. The acting was quiet and knowing for the most part (Maggie Smith being a bit of a caricature), but there was nothing outstanding. None of the seven plots were original. You could see point B straight ahead, while standing at point A. Ok, I didn't know Graham would die, but that's because I wasn't particularly concerned. Since he nearly fainted twice it was pretty obvious. Donnelly? She was too extreme a bigot to remain one for long. Doug and Jean's marriage? She was set up as the shrew villain, so she had to fall, though it happened gently. There were no surprises, no laughs (maybe soft smiles). You could see everything coming, but if you have extra time on your hands, don't bother to get out of the way. The ride is smooth, if uneventful.

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