An Escape from Escapist Fare

Summer movies usually have a few things in common – explosions, vehicle chases (be they cars, airplanes, or space ships), and enough special effects technicians to fill the phone book of a small city.  When it’s done well, such as with The Avengers or Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre, it can be interesting, surprising, and even have tender moments.  But too often the explosions, chases, and SF/X are about all the movie has going for it.

If you want to escape to a movie where the only vehicle excitement comes from trying to survive the roads in a foreign country and the acting is the special effects, then check out The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

To a disparate group of elderly Brits, the hotel’s ad on the internet sounds like an answer to their troubles.  Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) has just lost her husband of 40 years and must sell her house to pay off debts.  Doug Ainslie (Bill Nighy), a recently retired civil servant, and his wife Jean (Penelope Wilton) had sunk their retirement savings into their daughter’s Internet business only to have the money sink out of sight.  High Court Justice Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) has abruptly retired and decided to return to India where he lived as a boy.  It was there he’d known and lost the great love of his life.  Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) is an aging Lothario, seeking to stay active, while Marge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) is tired of being Grandma and wants to find romance – preferably with an exceedingly well-off gentleman.  Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) is in need of a hip replacement and can get the operation in India without any delay.  The only problem for her is that there are too many Indians in India.

They all end up on the same flight out from Heathrow to Mumbai, but their connection to Jaipur is cancelled.  Dashwood slips back into the culture and makes arrangements for bus transport to the center of Jaipur and then tuk-tuks (3-wheel motorcycle taxis) to the hotel.  When they arrive they are greeted effusively by Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), the hotel’s manager.  Sonny has great dreams for the hotel, seeing a market for people who want to outsource their retirement.  Unfortunately, the publicity he created is based on those dreams rather than reality.

Evelyn creates a blog on which she records her impressions and experiences (and through it becomes the movie’s narrator).  She also finds a job, teaching call center personnel how to talk to actual people.  Doug, who’s been emasculated by his job and his wife for years, thrives in the new culture and actively explores the city, while Jean refuses to leave the hotel.  Marge and Norman join a club to meet Mr. and Ms. Right, respectively.  Muriel has her operation but faces a long rehabilitation.  And Graham goes in search of the India he once knew, and the love he lost.  Sonny is determined to make the hotel a success so he can marry the girl he loves, Sunaina (Tena Desae), who works in the same call center where Evelyn found her job.

The movie is directed by John Madden, who also did Her Majesty Mrs. Brown and Shakespeare in Love (both with Judi Dench) as well as last year’s excellent thriller, The Debt.  Madden is wonderful at observing a scene such as Graham getting lost in his memories while coaching some street children at cricket.  Assisted by his actors, he creates gem-like moments that sparkle without flourishes or bravado.  On the Goodreads website, the source material (Those Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach) has received strong responses in both the negative and positive from readers.  However, the screenplay by Ol Parker (Imagine Me and You) has distilled all the good out of the book and put it on the screen.

Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson are incredible as always.  They can give a page-worth of exposition with a single look.  The rest of the cast is just as sterling.  Bill Nighy is poignant as his character rediscovers what it is to live.  Penelope Wilton has appeared in Shawn of the Dead and Matchpoint, though she’s probably best known for her turn as MP (later Prime Minister) Harriet Jones on Doctor Who.  Her Jean comes close to being the heavy of the piece, though she retains sympathy in the end.  Ronald Pickup has appreared in around a hundred British TV series and movies in the last 45 years, along with roles in movies such as The Mission and Never Say Never Again.  His Norman Cousins is both self-confident as well as sadly self-aware.  Celia Imrie (Bridget Jones’ Diary, Calendar Girls) is delightfully decadent in a restrained British way, while also aware that time is passing.   Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) dances on the edge of caricature yet his honesty and energy keeps Sonny from slipping over that edge.

The movie has laugh-out-loud funny times playing on the “English culture clash,” which is close to its own genre in the movies.  The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel makes it fresh with real characters that you feel for and a light touch in both the directing and writing.  This is the kind of movie that builds its audience by word of mouth.  After you see it, you’ll find yourself wanting to sing its praises.  So if you’ve heard one too many movie explosions this summer, go see this movie that tickles your funny bone while touching your heart.

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