Monday, May 14, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel [2011]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (directed by John Madden, screenplay by Ol Parker based on the novel by Deborah Moggach) is a film that I found problematic on a number of levels.

First of all even though most of the protagonists in the film are not Indian (but rather retirees from Europe, and then specifically from England), the film is set largely in contemporary India.  As such, I do believe that a fair/complete evaluation of this movie will have to wait for the film's release in India (on May 18th) and subsequent critical reaction there.  (Yes, I understand that India is a complex and dynamic society of over a billion people, multiple languages, religions and social strata.  Still, I just can't see how one could make a fair evaluation of the movie without Indian voices.  After all, it is a film about their country).   [Note that the reviews by the Times of India / India Today following release in India were predictably mixed -- good cast but poorer screenplay/presentation of the country]. 

Second, as an American rather than a Brit or otherwise European, it was not necessarily easy to relate to the (perhaps) emerging paradigm being explored -- Brits/Europeans deciding to go to India (or other places in South Asia) to retire.  True there have been (relatively wealthy) Americans who have chosen to retire in such places as San Miguel Allende or Puerto Vallarta in Mexico over the years.  Havana, Cuba in the pre-Castro years served a similar purpose.  Still, India is truly "a half a world away" (10-12 time zones) away from the United States.  So the retirement option explored here could be as relatable to most Americans as a Jane Austen or Kipling novel.

On the flip-side, however, and I have at least two of them ;-):  First I belong to an international religious order, with a thriving Province in the Tamil Nadu state of India.  About 20% of the classmates who I studied with while studying at our Order's international college in Rome were from India.  It turns out that India is only about 3-4 or so time zones ahead of Rome (about the difference between in time between East and West Coasts of the United States).

Then I have younger Czech relatives who have a clearly different spacial concept than my American one.  Some of them have gone on vacation to the Canary Islands (south of Spain and off the coast of Africa -- from where Columbus actually embarked on his voyages to the New World).  Others have gone to scuba dive off of Egypt's Red Sea coast which they have found far closer (and cheaper) than crossing the Atlantic to do the same thing in the Caribbean (the Bahamas, Virgin Islands, Aruba, etc) as American/Canadian tourists would do.  Finally, the most adventurous of my younger relatives from the C.R. (a psychologist and her husband) actually went one summer to canoe the Mekong River in Laos a few years ago.  So European conceptions of "what's close" or even "what's on the horizon" are different than those of us Americans.

Then to round things out, consider that Goa has long been "India's Riviera" (and was actually featured in the film Bride and Prejudice [2004] a contemporary Indian update on the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice), Dubai has become something like the Middle-East's Monte Carlo / Las Vegas every bit as exotic as a locale from the Medieval Middle-Eastern classic 1001 Nights, and Argentinian Ernesto ("Che") Guevara in much the same tradition as Marlon Brando in "Wild One" [1953] or Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider" [1969] took an epic motorcycle journey in his youth (across his native South America).

All this is to say that while an American audience could find the idea of Brits/Europeans going to India to retire initially unrelatable, when one starts looking at the distances it's not necessarily all that impossible, EVEN IF for the vast majority of people no matter where they are from, living most of one's life in one country and retiring then in another is still something outside the realm of possibility or even imagination.  Still this becomes one of the questions explored in the film -- Will Europeans come to "outsource" their elderly to places like India?

Finally, one of the subplots in the film involves a homosexual character seeking "closure in his sunset years."  The character, Graham Dashwood (played by Tom Wilkinson), had grown-up in India in the closing years of "the Raj" and had been sent back to England by his English family after his homosexuality had been found out.  Now, knowing that his health was deteriorating, he was seeking to go back to India to find the Indian man who had been his first and only true love.  Needless to say this subplot is rather problematic one for a practicing Catholic today, even if most of us (up and down and across the Catholic Church) have relatives and friends who have come out as homosexual.  Yet, homosexuality has become a point where Catholic Church and contemporary culture are more or less obviously heading off in divergent directions.

So, what would seem initially to be a relatively "light" "art film" with a great "ensemble cast" becomes quite challenging.   How will folks from India look at this film about older Westerners (some clearly portrayed as racists) coming to their country (at times kicking and screaming but with little financial choice) to retire?  Does a film like this even make sense to most Western audiences since the vast majority of Europeans to say nothing of Americans will never be able to afford to go to a place as distant as India?  How is a Catholic heterosexual supposed to look at a film where one of the main characters is portrayed as both homosexual and sympathetic?

[Note: As a result of the CNS/USCCB's publication of its review of this film (in anticipation to the film's general release as opposed to its remaining on the "indi/art house circuit"), I've significantly reworked this paragraph as well as the following one of my review to take into account of the U.S. Bishops' office's concerns]. With regards to the last question about the portrayal of the film's homosexual character, it is worthy to note here that the CNS/USCCB gave the film an "O" (or morally offensive rating) for its "benign view of premarital sex and homosexual acts" (indicating that its concerns with the film are more general than with simply its portrayal of the homosexual character). Yet wouldn't it be natural for someone who knows that he/she is homosexual to simply _hate_ the Catholic Church now for insisting that there is simply no way for one to be who one is (homosexual) and be considered "normal" let alone enjoy the same legal / social rights and protections as non-homosexuals?  But there we are.  Even if we can't change a thing about it (and I know very clearly that I can't) at minimum it should not be surprising to us who are sincere and practicing Catholics why homosexuals (and their heterosexual friends) would hate us.

On the flip side thanks to the CNS/USCCB's review of the film, perhaps those who would tend toward hating us in the Catholic Church for its position on homosexuality could perhaps better understand where the Catholic Church is coming from and the larger scope -- ultimately rooted in what in Catholic moral theology is called natural law on which it bases its teaching on sexuality.  So, again, there's _a lot_ in this film (and surrounding discussion) for adults to think about! (Like in a many other similar films that I've reviewed here, I don't believe that most viewers under young adult age would really "get" this film or the concerns that the Catholic bishops would have with it).

Wow.  So then what's the film actually about? ;-).  Well it's about a group of British retirees who for various reasons find that they are compelled to go to India in their sunset years.  Evelyn Greenslade (played by Judi Dench), recently widowed, finds that her husband left so many debts that she had to sell her own house to pay them off and had no place to go.  Muriel Donnelly (played by Maggie Smith) who had been a domestic worker all her life, finds that she needs a hip-replacement.  Though she's never been anywhere outside of England and loathes to travel to India now, due to reasons of both time (being on a waiting list) and money is told that it'd be far easier and cheaper for her to go to India for her operation than to wait for it in England.  Douglas and Jean Ainslie (played by Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) found to their misfortune that they put too much of their own money in their daughter's "start-up business" and now had no place to retire affordably in England.  There was Graham Dashwood (played by Tom Wilkinson) who was trying to come to closure and peace with regards to his lost love back in India.  Finally, there were Norman Cousins (played by Ronald Pickup) and Madge Hardcastle (played by Celie Imrie) who were still (or once again) single at their (relatively late) stage in life and figured "what the heck?"  They weren't ready to die yet.

All these people receive in one way or another an advertisement to come to India and stay at the "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" to live out the rest of their years if they so desired.  And so, for their various reasons and with a spectrum of approaches/attitudes toward that prospect, they all decided to take try it out.  And of course much ensues.

The hotel is run by Sonny Kapoor (played by Dev Patel) who has a dream - to convert the hotel left to him by his father into a retirement hotel for "outsourced old people" sent to India "by England and other places that hated old people" that would become such a haven for them that "they would become so happy that they would simply refuse to die."  Sonny was an optimist, a dreamer and someone who was trying to find his own way to capitalize on the globalization trends of the world today.  He also had it problems at home, as he appeared to be "the only one of his brothers who did not succeed" so far in India's current boom.

Again, much much plays out.  Sonny has a girl-friend Sunaina (played by Tena Desae) who works at a Indian call center hired by Western English speaking firms to do the customer service work for them.  Sonny's mother, Mrs Kapoor (played by Lillete Dubey), of some wealth (and with those two successful sons, one in Dubai and the other in London) sees Sunaina as a possible gold-digger and her son Sonny as a hopeless dreamer who could easily be taken advantage of.

Now both Hollywood and Bollywood require that the story end well.  So one could guess how it all ends.  Still there is more to this picture than meets the eye.  Former domestic worker Muriel, in particular, has something of an epiphany during her time at the hotel.  Others don't necessarily change much at all.  But then, that's how often life is.  As Evelyn (the Judi Dench character) writes to her sons in her blog at some point: "India, like most of life is what you bring to it."  If one is open to change, one accepts it and even thrives in it.  If one is not ...

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  2. Didn't really do much for me mainly because of all of the cheesy and schmaltzy moments that all seemed to come out of nowhere. The cast is pretty good though but they can't do much to elevate this material. Good review Dennis.

  3. LOL ;-) ... One of the things I've always enjoyed about going to the movies because it's a lot cheaper and less time consuming than traveling to the various places shown (if alas in a movie one's at least partly a "hostage" of the script-writer/director ;-).

    still, I can see your point. I did talk about a fair number of places that people would perhaps want to visit.
    Yet of all the places that I mentioned in the note, the only place that I actually visited (aside from the Czech Rep where my parents were from and about 1/2 my relatives still live and Rome where I studied in the seminary for three years) was San Miguel Allende, which was relatively near to one of my Order's communities in Mexico. (I was also able to visit my Order's missions in Acre, Brazil (in the Amazon) and the mountains of Guerrero Mexico). The other places that I mentioned in my note were visited by various friends and family over the years.

    I meet a lot of people in my line of work, and when I was young I thought that Indiana Jones and even James Bond were just awesome ;-).