Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2012 1:57 am 
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Old Brits, new place

John (Shakespeare in Love)Madden's Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has an English-language title for its French release, but it's been simplified to Indian Palace. For once a proven director with a good budget and a cast to die for caters to the large over-fifty audiene that buys so many movie tickets, especially for daytime showings. And this is an easy movie for that audience to like, fun, "exotic," touching, but unthreateningly predictable, with strings neatly and satisfyingly tied at the end. Best Exotic is capable of amusing and bemusing most anyone and contains genuinely toucing moments. If you're bent on something edgy and cool, you'd best stay far away; but Madden doesn't let his conventionality stifle his story's rich possibilities. Though this is hardly as subtle and deep, you might even momentarily think of E.M. Forster's Passage to India. Only the Raj is long gone and this is an example of elder Brits being 'outsourced' like services to a place where their savings will go further.

The premise, touching on late life rebirth, living one's dreams, and settling of accounts both literal and figurative, is a simple but resonant one -- a group of senior Brits move to Jaipur. Instead of the usual Italy or Costa Brava they ship off to India, to a large, roomy hotel whose actually pretty shaky condition (the phones don't work, some rooms are missing doors) has been concealed in the hotel's Photoshoped brochure by its compulsively optimistic self-appointed manager, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), whose family owns the place. Sonny is one of Dev Patel's jokey, hyperactive performances. He's charming and deftly articulate in speaking his ornate lines, but quite silly. He was calmed down for Slumdog Millionaire, but observe his goofy mugging in the BBC teen series "Skins" and you'll get an idea of what's in store here. Sonny's family is wealthy but he takes after his late, ineffectual father. His mother wants him to turn the place over to his brothers and let it be sold. He wants to marry a pretty but unsuitable young woman (Tena Desae), not chosen by his Delhi family, who works at an outsourced call service.

But it's what is to happen in the lives of Tom Wilkenson, Maggie Smith, Bill Nihy, and Judi Dench -- which is quite a lot -- that will really matter here. The movie avoids cliches about India by presenting it impressionistically, as a whirlwind of bustle and craziness, bright colors, smiles, and wonderful light. These are the things that Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson), a newly retired judge, remarks upon, has long known, and still appreciates. He grew up here, but left forty years ago. It turns out he's gay and has come back to find the love of his life, a task in which he touchingly succeeds. Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) is a new widow, who let her husband lead in all things and has now learned his mismanagement of finances has forced her to sell their posh house to pay off debts and move elsewhere. Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nihy) is trapped in a combative marriage with the crabby Penelope Wilton, which he has politely accepted these many years. Moreover they too have become poor by investing all their money in their daughter's startup, which hasn't paid off. Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) is a long-time domestic who never had money. She has no use for the exotic, or any food she can't say the name of, but has come along for a quick, low- cost hip replacement. The trick is to juggle all these events and resortings of relationships that the group arrival enables. The hotel holds them together and the acting makes them sing. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has few longeurs, though it's not the script that's to thank for our amusement so much as the brilliant cast and deft editor Chris Gill, who together achieve a rhythm that makes things go by seamlessly. It may not be till later that the predictability of the script (based on the novel These Foolish Thinkg by Deborah Moggach) begins to sink in.

Wilkinson's character's story, a sort of Brokeback Mountain for the Raj set, is unquestionably sentimental. But it's balanced by an unsentimental English acceptance of aging, handled so well by other cast members, and by the dry, realistic outlooks of their characters. Judi Dench has a different tole here, less feisty and aggressive, more simply honest. Bill Nihy projects a dry, English irony that's not without a willingness to start something new It's Nihy most of all who keeps things light, just as Maggie Smith, with her equally dry negativity, prevents the Indian setting from ever seeming sentimentalized.

Let's not give this movie too easy a pass, though. Too much is crammed into too short a time, and everything is much too easily resolved. As the Variety critic notes, it's one of many examples of how chances are not taken that the one gay character gets killed off before he can do anything to offend the target audience, and the way Maggie Smith "converts from total racist to wise, kindly old dear by the end stretches credibility too far." But did you expect entertainment for a large middlebrow senior audience to be biting and intense?

Indian Palace, AKA Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, out in the UK Feb. 24, went into limited US release May 4, 2012, in France May 9. It was screened for this review at UGC Odéon, Paris, May 9, 2012.

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