“Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not yet the end.”
Some people think of that quote as belonging to Paulo Coelho. Others to John Lennon. A special few, however, know it as the oft-spoken adage of Sonny Patel, owner of a fictional hotel in Jaipur, India. As someone who believes The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to be the best movie of 2012, the fact that I fall into the latter category should be no surprise. It should also be no surprise that many people choose not to believe that I’m serious about loving it as much as I do. Seeing and enjoying poorly reviewed movies is a hobby—or perhaps condition—of mine (I saw Safe Haven last weekend on my day off from work), so I don’t have the best track record.
I’m aware that a movie about seven elderly Brits who move into an Indian hotel sounds like a red flag to many people, so I understand why you think I’m joking or perverse or wrong in liking The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel as much as I do. But I’m not. And it’s my goal to make you believe me.
Though Oscar nominees for Best Picture are by no means a definitive list of a given year’s best movies, the spotlight placed upon them during awards season provides the kind of widespread familiarity that should help with my upcoming comparisons.
Even though I loathed every speaksongy second of Les Mis and was genuinely shocked by just how generic Argo ended up being, if I were to replace a single Best Picture nominee with TBEMH, I’d go with Silver Linings Playbook. The two films have large casts filled with tremendously talented actors. They both have a similarly fence-hopping tone that juggles laughs and tears. They also share themes like starting over, growing old, moving on from former loves, dealing with new ones, and seeking a purpose in one’s life. But! Silver Linings Playbook attempted to tackle all of the above by adding a rose-colored layer of super-cute mental illness to its lens, but mental illness isn’t all that cute. With those constant violent outbursts, Bradley Cooper’s Pat had no business being out of the hospital. He needed to get better. But Silver Linings Playbook had no intention of presenting characters who behave the way real people behave in situations where real people often find themselves. TBEMH did.
Earlier I described it as a movie about “seven elderly Brits who move into an Indian hotel.” And because it’s very easy for a movie that can be explained in so few words to create an equally simplistic final product, any of you who scoffed at the premise were entirely justified. It was adapted from a book I haven’t read, but people I’ve talked to who have say the two works have little in common aside from my initial nine-word description. But the film adaptation, at least, deserves some spinning out. Something like: a movie about seven British citizens in their twilight years who, for a number of reasons including health care, squandered savings, past loves, and new ones, move to an Indian hotel to better their lives. Yes. That’s better.
There is a humanity in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that isn’t evident in its marketing, or even its title. Both suggest a simple romp about nervous (and possibly xenophobic) Brits, but what we find instead is a thoughtful, funny, and occasionally profound story about getting older that doesn’t patronize its audience or reduce its characters to stereotypes.
Evelyn (Judi Dench) is introduced while setting up her new internet service after the death of her husband have left the utilities in disarray. An old person being overwhelmed by new technology is an easy joke, but TBEMH treats her as someone confused but capable; and her phone conversation with an Indian customer service agent isn’t used as a punchline, but as the beginning of a larger subplot. Evelyn gets a job (her first ever) as a consultant at an Indian call center in a series of scenes that both surprise us with their heart and impress us with their construction. Also, the death of M in Skyfall coupled with a TBEMH sequel in development means Judi Dench has found a new franchise to preside over.
Muriel (Maggie Smith) is the oldest and most crotchety of the bunch, having come to India because it was the cheapest and most immediate option for her hip surgery. She’s an angry, intolerant old woman who, at the movie’s start, finds India and its residents appalling, but she eventually changes her attitude. And though her eventual 180 is expected, it takes time. It’s earned. TBEMH understands that we don’t change at the drop of a hat or simply because it’s the third act, and Muriel is given a reason to decide it’s time to change.
The only married couple in residence are Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), who came to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel after a bad investment left them with nothing but dreary, panic button-filled retirement options in London. Their marriage has devolved into a relationship filled with tension and devoid of love, and while Nighy and Wilton are arguably the film’s most experienced comedic actors, they turn what could have easily been Archie and Edith into a heartbreaking and honest portrayal of a marriage that’s run its course.
Singles Madge and Norman (Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup) are the horniest of the residents, deciding to leave England after feeling like they’d exhausted its pool of potential partners. Both are looking for sex and are outwardly confident about their prospects, but they have an unshakable, private fear of dying alone. Any movie can throw in a Viagra joke, but TBEMH turns what could have been an easy joke about that funny blue pill into something sweet and, to some extent, hopeful.
Even Sonny (Dev Patel), the owner of the hotel, gets a subplot. When his mother arrives unannounced, she makes her disapproval of his personal and professional choices loud and clear. And though it could have been written as a cliche-filled throwaway story about arranged marriages, it’s given the time to become as satisfying as the others.
The final resident is Graham (Tom Wilkinson) and he’s given the best subplot and you’ll be in tears because Tom Wilkinson is perfect and that’s all I’ll say about him.
Perhaps it isn’t hard to convince all of you that an octet of respected British thespians makes a movie worth watching, but I think the movie’s setting may be holding you back. I’ve been asked on more than one occasion whether or not the film has a xenophobic or outright racist representation of India, and my answer is a very confident “No.” This is a story could have been set in any place its central characters consider unfamiliar. Though the elderly Brits are initially overwhelmed by the cultural differences, the setting is never presented as backwards or undesirable. Though hesitant at first, everyone gets used to the food. To the transportation. To the customs. The residents of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel do their best to not only adapt to their surroundings, but to accept and find comfort in them.
Because not everyone in the movies goes abroad to eat, pray, and love for a holiday. Not everyone in the movies experiences something different only to return home and pat themselves on the back for surviving it all. The characters of TBEMH are in India to stay, and by the end it becomes their home.
So what do you think? Are you convinced? Are you willing to take a chance on Judi Dench? Maybe I was too complimentary. If so, I should ground it with some criticism. Here goes.
My one complaint with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the inaccuracy of that saying, so allow me to offend Paulo, John, and Sonny by offering a revised version: Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it’s because it’s the Oscars.
Previously in series: How Did ‘Forrest Gump’ Ever Beat Out ‘Pulp Fiction’ For Best Picture?
Bobby Finger will be rooting for Amour on Sunday. He will be disappointed.