Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Seven elderly English people move to India. They do this because they have been lured by promises of a golden retirement, far from the drizzle and depression of Dorking. Naturally, when they arrive in the East, things are not as they expected. Obstacles must be overcome, new ways of living must be learned, and people find they must let go of the past. Can these sixty-and-seventy-somethings overcome their prejudices, and forge a new life in the Third World?
This being a British middle-class attempt at a comedy-drama, you can round up the usual suspects … Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie (what happened to Richard Briers and Maria Aitken? Were they tied up in pantomime in Leatherhead?) To be a successful TV and film actor in England, you must (a) speak with a cut-glass accent and (b) have been born before World War Two. The script is derived from a novel (aren't they all?) and so it has to be given an injection of life – the slow, contemplative pace of a prose work doesn't translate well to the big screen. This is done by tagging-on a bunch of one-line gags. Screen writer Ol Parker has done his best, but Bob Hope this isn't. India is "the Costa Brava … but with more elephants", and we even get that old chestnut, "If she dies, she dies!"
No-one, it seems, can make a film about India without descending into the most irritating of clichés (ever seen "City of Joy"?) The much-lauded "Slumdog Millionaire" was a major offender in this respect, and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" fares no better. One imagines that this project was chosen for three reasons: first, there was a novel already in being (most film-makers can't or won't trust their own judgment, and always resort to the crutch of a pre-existing work to base their movie on), second, with a cast of seven geriatrics, it was perfect for Britain's talent pool of actors and third, India looms large in the British consciousness. If the threadbare Empire thing is finally receding, there are many educated British people who have backpacked their way around Goa and Uttar Pradesh in their student days, and are also vaguely aware of India as an "emerging economy", so there might be money to be made from an Anglo-Indian film. So why the stereotypes? To say this film's understanding of India is skin-deep is not being very complimentary … towards skin.
India in 2012 is a burgeoning modern state, with its own nuclear weapons and its own space program. In a population of 1.2 billion, there are quite a few switched-on individuals who know about stuff. But in Western films, we stubbornly insist on patronizing this vast and vibrant culture. You know the sort of thing. Get to India and you can't trust the water, can't trust the food, can't trust the drivers. Sonny (Dev Patel) is the young dreamer whose ramshackle hotel forms the setting of the story, and guess what – he is delightful, charming, unrealistic and not entirely honest. In other words, he is a child. Adorable, but a child.
And there's the rub. Like "City of Joy" and "Slumdog Millionaire", this film feeds into the assumption that Indians are inferior. They don't have our standards. Efficiency, propriety, hygiene – these are Western characteristics. You enter the maelstrom when you set out on an Indian road, because – bless them – they are suicidal maniacs when they get behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle. And they eat funny food.
What becomes of our Surbiton Seven after they've exchanged Cheam for Chandigarh? Well, it's all fairly predictable. They go through a phase of disillusionment, then they learn to love the Indians, and it all gets nice and heart-warming. Evelyn, Judi Dench's character, starts working in a call center and Muriel (Maggie Smith) takes a look at the hotel books. Before you can say "poppadum", the call center is a raging success, because Evelyn shows the operators how to interact with callers. The hotel is turned around, because now somebody with skill is controlling the finances. You see? That's all India needed – for two elderly women to show up and tell the locals what to do. Never mind that Muriel is a dyed-in-the-wool racist and Evelyn has never actually had a job of any kind in her life.
As for Norman (Ronald Pickup), he is the Reigate Romeo who can't accept the aging process and the loss of sexual potency. Know what happens? He meets an English woman who's lived all her life in India, and they fall in love. The Subcontinent has worked its magic again. The only thing is, why couldn't he fall in love with an Indian woman?
In the final analysis, the film doesn't work because these people are not touched by India. They go there, but they remain, psychologically, in Wimbledon. India is a success only in so far as it submits to Western ways of doing things. Sunny decides he's going to marry Sunaina (Tena Desae), even though she's from an inferior caste, because he wants to – and love conquers all, doesn't it? Never mind that they are both Hindus, living in an ancient Hindu civilization, with its time-honored ways of doing things. The Western quick fix is the way to go. How nice for us, to be able to breathe in India's aromas, glory in its colors, solve all its problems within hours of arriving … and still remain stranded, psychologically, in Surrey.


Detachment is an extraordinary achievement in filmmaking. Written by first time writer Carl Lund and directed by the controversial Tony Kaye (one would never know, but he performs music and comedy at open mics around Los Angeles), and presented by one of the finest ensemble casts imaginable, this film should be required viewing for everyone from junior high to the elderly. In one poignant story we are provided glimpses into the current status of our public education, the plight of burned out teachers attempting to repair the absent parent syndrome while reaching out to find a place beyond drugs, fighting, physical and mental abuse and the lethargy of responding to a chaotic world, and a dark view of the existentialism that allows each of us to forge ahead despite a sense of worth in a world gone crazy.
Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody in a galvanizing performance) copes with life as a substitute teacher: he comes into schools for a specific stint then detaches and repeats the cycle of caring to provide hope for kids to become someone of significance, failing repeatedly. He is assigned to a New York school headed by the soon to be fired Principal Carol Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden), meets a classroom of foul mouthed, disrespectful, angry students and attempts to teach them English. He is immediately challenged by a sassy kid whom he sends out of the room, a young angry black student with whom he connects by showing him parameters of interaction, a young obese, disturbed but gentle Meredith (Betty Kay, in a sterling performance) among others. He also encounters the other teachers and staff - the beautiful Sarah Madison (Christina Hendricks), the school counselor Dr. Doris Parker (Lucy Liu), the burned out Mr. Wiatt (Tim Blake Nelson) and Ms Perkins (Blythe Danner) and Mr. Sarge Kepler (William Peterson), and only teacher who fights back with a sense of humor Mr. Charles Seaboldt (James Caan). It is a grim situation and Henry takes his depression home.
Henry encounters a young girl Erica (Sami Gayle, in a career making role) who despite her youth is a street hooker, beaten badly by her johns. He offers her protection in his meager home - a place to sleep and eat and recover form the street abuse of her profession. A profound relationship develops - and while that satisfies Erica's desperate need for family, it frightens Henry enough to eventually call foster care to remove her. Henry visits his elderly mentally challenged Grandpa (Louis Zorich) who lives in a assisted living home and his frustrations about his memories of his apparently alcoholic suicidal mother and the lack of care being given his Grandpa results in one of Henry's rare explosions of anger - a rage that extends to every aspect of his view of life. At school Henry gradually wins the hearts and minds of his class, showing them that education is the path to living a life of meaning. His friendship with the beleaguered Meredith is supportive, but as Henry completes his three week assignment at the school tragedies surround him. It seems that everyone in the story is in a life and death struggle to find beauty in a seemingly vicious and loveless world.
In addition to the actors mentioned there are shining little vignette roles by Celia Au, Renée Felice Smith, Kwoade Cross, and others - many appearing for the first time on film and each radiating talent. But the film belongs to Adrien Brody who provides such a staggeringly real character that his message is felt in every cell of the viewer's mind. This is a first rate film in every aspect. It should be seen by everyone who either shares the mental milieu of the characters depicted here or cares deeply about the sad chaotic situation we have created during these particular times.