The Empire Strikes Back: John Madden Does EmoFogey Porn With Just a Pinch of Exploitation
One of many quotes from Rudyard Kipling, that famed English poet whose celebration of British Imperialism and numerous stories of the English in India are still well revered today, was “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Too bad that not all stories are formed well enough to remember, as Kipling may very well have thought about John Madden’s latest effort, an adaptation of a novel by Deborah Moggach. Originally titled “These Foolish Things,” we’re stuck with the senior citizen courting title of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the flimsy film version. True, it’s still enjoyable to see the likes of Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, and the luminous Judi Dench sticking around for an entire feature, but at what cost?
We’re introduced to seven British senior citizens in slapdash scenarios, all strapped for cash and in need of somewhere to go. There’s Evelyn (Judi Dench), recently widowed and not wishing to move in with her children to help pay back her husband’s debt. There’s Madge (Celia Imrie), a spunky divorcee who doesn’t want to babysit the grandkids one more night; there’s Graham (Tom Wilkinson) a High Court judge who suddenly decides he needs to retire and revisit the country where he was raised; there’s Jean (Penelope Wilton) and Douglas (Bill Nighy), unable to afford a retirement home because they invested unwisely in their daughter’s startup business; there’s Norman (Ronald Pickup), an old codger that still wants to be wanted; and then there’s the racist Muriel (Maggie Smith), a working class woman that needs a hip replacement and outsources herself to India to get it replaced quickly. In fact, all of these seniors are advertised as having “outsourced” themselves to India so they can live out their final days in peace for a fraction of the cost. They were all lured in by the spectacular pictures of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on the internet and all managed to book the same flight to their new destination. But upon arriving, they find the hotel is being run by a very young man, Sonny (Dev Patel) and the hotel is in ill repair. The situation is further complicated by the arrival of Sonny’s mother, Mrs. Kapoor (Lillete Dubey), who wants to sell the hotel and refuses to allow her stubborn son to marry a modern woman he’s courting. Of course, some of these characters blossom into something else, and some do not. Some have secrets, some need love, and unfortunately, some need more of a plot line or character arc. Such is often the case in set-ups like these.
The ridiculous arrival of only these seven people, and on the same flight, no less, sets the stage for the blatant lack of logic or realism in all that follows. Madden makes the most of juxtaposing the senior English crowd with the noisy bustling of India, going for broke with cliché after cliché featuring whirling dervish camerawork paired with exotic music at every moment he’s not laying obvious character groundwork that’s only going to be exploited for melodrama several scenes later. Using all his energies on the stupendous lineup of British talent in the cast, all the characters from India are sorely neglected, barely etched out characters, especially the bungling Dev Patel, coming across as an inebriated kabuki actor next to the likes of a Judi Dench, his gangly arms akimbo, his voice a scattered, explosive shout, saying something ridiculous for comic relief at every turn.
Sadly, the film feels like Madden’s administering a harried juggling act, but one that drops a few balls, with the criminally underutilized Celia Imrie falling to the wayside, along with Ronald Pickup. Since so little effort seems to have been made to cohesively involve them, why they were included in the first place seems baffling. Worse, Maggie Smith’s got a turkey of a role to contend with, playing blatant racist cum earth mother, redeemed with some of the laziest and hackneyed writing you’re apt to see outside of The Help (2011).
While Judi Dench and Bill Nighy make the most of their lot, poor Penelope Wilton gets to be the dumb bitch everyone hates, not given one redeeming quality in her staunchly repulsive characterization of a bitter, empty housewife. If the film has any moment of humanity, it’s with one quiet scene shared by Tom Wilkinson and Judi Dench, where the stoic Wilkinson opens up about what he’s searching for in India, returning after 40 years time to find the man he has always loved (though, upon realizing his goals, don’t be surprised at how the toothless narrative deals with him afterwards). Neither empowering nor illuminating, resting its laurels staunchly on the adage that the only failure is failing to try, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel blunders its own rhetoric. It’s blatantly obvious that this pandering effort is only putting in the bare minimum.