Friday, June 1, 2012

Film review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel -- save money, move to India

It’s Friday, and time for a weekend cultural offering --

Once in awhile, rather than seeking common ground, it is good just to have the beloved pick the movie, and usually I don’t regret it. I wouldn’t have seen great movies like “The Blind Side” or “The Help” without deferring to tastes other than my own, and so it also was recently, when I stalwartly trooped off to see Dame Judy Dench, et al in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

As might be expected for a movie with lots of aging British actresses and no gunplay or CGI, there were perhaps only a half-dozen men in the theater, and I appeared to be the only viewer under the age of 50. The movie earned a polite and warm round of applause from the audience at the end, something one doesn’t encounter all that often these days -- a pleasant benefit of hanging out with a more mature crowd for the afternoon, perhaps.

The basics of the plot are that a collection of British retirees have answered the ad from a hotel in India that is even more aging than they are, essentially deciding to “outsource” their retirement to a place they can afford to live. Multiple subplots develop as this group creates an expatriate community in an exotic foreign location. It is hardly the glory of being a Briton in India during the Raj, but genteel enough for all that.

There are the usual nods to modern social sensibilities and preoccupations: a homosexual British jurist (played unerringly by the underappreciated Tom Wilkinson) wanting, before he dies, to see the Indian lover of his youth (perhaps the most touching and human part of the film,) a loveless marriage between a retired civil servant and a wife whose natural shrewishness has been rubbed raw by the penury caused by them having invested most of their life's savings into a daughter’s sketchy start-up company, a scruffy would-be playboy whose preoccupations with having one last go at a libidinous fling betray the stark emotional loneliness of his existence, a recently widowed woman who has never before had a life of her own apart from her husband (Dench,) and a crotchety woman (played by Maggie Smith, who so dominated the screen as the Dowager Countess in the ITV/PBS series “Downton Abbey”) whose entire life “in service” was thrown over by a new generation of the British ruling class that somehow didn’t get the memo that some of their household servants still treated their jobs as a vocation in the truest sense of the word -- one that involved loyalty to their employers, loyalty that is not, in these modern times, necessarily returned in kind when offered.

Themes of aging and of questioning where life has gone and whether any of it was worth it play out in relatively predictable fashion; but not less effective for all that -- this is life, after all, and modern existence loses none of its pathos simply because bathos is also involved (if I may.) As Hilton Kramer, who I have been reading and quoting a lot these days, once said -- anything worth saying is worth saying over and over again. These existential explorations are nicely scripted and acted -- one could imagine even these talented actors being stymied by a more mediocre script or this quite good script falling flat with lesser actors. Still, the most fascinating parts of the film are found in the substrata.

Most important in this respect is the brief but effective portrayal of life in modern Britain at the beginning of the film, seen particularly through the eyes of Smith’s character, who finds herself facing the business end of a painful 6 month wait for a simple hip replacement thanks to British socialized medicine and who furthermore finds herself unable to find much of anyone at the hospital to talk to whose native tongue is actually English. When she makes the decision to outsource her hip replacement to India, recuperating at the “Marigold,” one thinks “why not?” If the poor old thing is going to be operated on by Indian doctors with difficult to understand accents, why not do it where the costs are low and where it can be done right away?

In fact, all of the characters seem, without commentary, to realize that while life in an Indian city involves smells and teeming crowds and intestinally challenging foods like nothing they have before experienced, there is a sense in which life really hasn’t changed that much when moving from “Londonistan” to India, where they are still surrounded by a different culture but where they are actually treated with more respect and kindness than they experienced at “home.”

Whether it is Smith’s character unexpectedly connecting with an “untouchable” -- who like her, is a domestic -- or Dench’s character unexpectedly finding herself going from retired housewife to consultant to an Indian calling center that desperately needs her ability to teach them how to talk to elderly British customers, or various characters finding themselves befriended by locals whose kindnesses bespeak a gentleness in Indian culture that makes one want to go there, we see that if there are changes for these British expats, they are arguably for the better. We can envision them heading toward a more pleasant sunset than they might have had back in a Britain that has largely cast its lot not with its own heritage but with the oppressive bureaucratic weight of the EU and the self-immolation of multiculturalism. They are comfortable not because they are rich and powerful foreigners, which they aren’t, they are rather comfortable because they have discovered a place that is (may one say it?) civilized.

These are thoughts that can’t help but preoccupy one a bit as one gets older. Part of the reward for surviving the Darwinian challenges of life and for paying the exorbitant costs of living in modern welfare states like Britain and America is that one presumes one will get to retire in familiar surroundings where everyone talks like you and understands you.

But what if the end game leads to a land where one's dotage is going to be spent in surroundings one doesn’t even recognize anymore, whether because of massive immigration or dizzying societal changes? Wouldn’t it make sense simply to outsource your life sooner, while you are young enough and adaptive enough to make for a smoother change to a more inexpensive and no less foreign locale?

Mark Zuckerberg’s partner at Facebook certainly decided quickly enough that it was time to take himself and his millions to a country without confiscatory tax policies. Presumably more will follow. But what of those who are neither physically fit enough or mentally sharp enough to take such a leap as do the characters in this film, nor wealthy enough to find a sheltered enclave, either abroad or within Western countries as demographics continue to change?

I digress... This is a lush film with an even lusher soundtrack (Indian music that has been Westernized enough to make it exceedingly pleasing to an Anglo-American movie-going public’s ears,) visuals that capture the light and colors of India with warmth and comfort and with just a touch of the frisson of exoticism that makes a movie like this more than a British ensemble film that just happens to be filmed in India. Not a film for the ages, but for the bloke who wants to earn some brownie points with his own beloved, one could do much worse.

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