30 May 2012
John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a movie about getting used to change. That is what we see the characters do — or not, as in the case of Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton), a soi-disant realist with a nasty habit of saddling every situation with the worst interpretation. The indignities of the other characters’ adjustments are barely hinted at; it is expected that the film’s most interested viewers will prefer to conjure these at some other time. As Ivy Compton-Burnett used to say, “I do not wish to be speaking of it.” We do not need to be watching it, either. All we need is that gentle reminder: you can get used to anything, so don’t be afraid of change. Worry instead about the alternative: imprisoning yourself in the block of familiarity.
That’s what Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) realizes that he has done. Growing up in Jaipur, he fell in love with Manoj, an Indian friend; the ensuing scandal disgraced the native’s family, but Graham escaped the brunt of it by going to university in England. At the beginning of the story, he is a High Court judge who can’t wait to retire; we’re not told that some bad news about a heart condition has resolved him to Do It Now. He has always intended to return to India to find his ruined former lover and perhaps do something to help him out, but he hasn’t gotten around to doing it. “Until now,” Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) whispers, when Graham tells her his tale. “Until now,” he agrees. The moment of reunion is a cinematic triumph, capturing muddle along with resolution in an unsimplified whole. Manoj’s life has not, it turns out, been at all wretched; it is Graham who, dithering in England, has done without.
It’s no surprise that Mr Wilkinson and Ms Dench (not to mention the superb Rajendra Gupta, as Manoj) bring their characters completely to life; what’s commendable about Best Exotic Marigold is the filmmaker’s skill at staying out of their way, and punctuating their “big” scenes (most of which are actually quiet) with razzle-dazzle pans of “chaotic” urban life. The teeming disorderliness is what the characters have to get used to, and we see that each of them has a different approach. Graham tries to track down Manoj. Evelyn gets a job, coaching young Indians working at a call center. Muriel Donnelly, a retired housekeeper whose hip replacement has been “outsourced,” takes a professional interest in the hotel’s housemaid, an untouchable. Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) and Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) go forth in search of fresh romantic conquests, refusing to affix “finis” to their sex lives. Jean Ainslie’s husband, Douglas (Bill Nighy) goes in for garden-variety sightseeing, while Jean herself, never having forgiven Douglas for investing their nest egg in their daughter’s Internet start-up, works up fresh belittlements to inflict upon him. She also humiliates herself royally by making a garish pass at Graham, who gives her a very cloudy look when, having heard him use the word with reference to himself, she tries to make a joke of it: “Is that ‘gay’ as in ‘happy’?”
The hotel itself is a comic device of Shakespearean vintage, like the Forest of Arden: it embodies the marriage plot that arrives at a happy ending only when the inmates — the handful of ageing Brits seeking comfortable retirement on the cheap — take action. The action that they take is varied; it includes dying. It commits them to change, even in Jean Ainslie’s case. More than that I cannot say. The lovers (Tena Desae and Dev Patel) are appealing stock characters, blocked by an intriguing stock dragon (Lillette Dubey), and the magic word turns out to be “love” after all. When the young people take the spotlight, it is never without a faint melancholy awareness that they, too, will one day confront the problem of being old. It’s the hotel that does it, the crumbling hotel that was old when the oldsters were born. Change is the bottom line.
What’s this? Yesterday’s mail brought a new Sharper Image catalogue. I couldn’t believe that the operation was still going! And still selling the same sort of gadgets, only now what modicum of cool its wares exuded twenty years ago — nearly thirty years ago, really — has evaporated in the austere Applesphere of today, where the ideal device count always tends toward one, and not in the opposite direction that will make the Sharper Image’s investors happy. There is also a certain rather blowsy overlap with the always-whimsical offerings of Hammacher Schlemmer. Take, for example, the Golf Club Drink Dispenser on page 18. What looks like a driver turns out to have a little red button and a little white spout. ”This ingenious and discreet ‘club’ is a great way to quench your thirst while on the course. Holds 48 oz…” Are we slipping? The idea of buying this gift as a gag for some golfer friends really did flash across my mind, but the afterburn was deep shame: what, short of murder, could be as immoral as paying for this piece of junk and having it shipped across several state lines to unsuspecting nice people? (Surely not the use that I suspect one of them might put it to — once.) Here’s where I started laughing out loud, though: on page 36. “Smart Organization While On the Move.” You could call it a geekolier: worn like a sash of nobility, from shoulder to hip, it is in fact a wallet with pockets for mobile phones, keys, and — ball point pens! Yes! The pocket protector of old on steroids! It’s not a bad idea, I have to admit, for urban hikes, but those pen clips! Has someone done a study showing that men are turned on by pen clips? That they feel thereby empowered, weaponized? I can’t begin to understand the wearing of writing equipment.
Then there was the Science Fiction Issue of The New Yorker, compleat with a Daniel Clowes cover entitled “Crashing the Gate.” Crashing the gate is one thing; the whole point of attending a party, invited or not, is to get someone to talk to you. I don’t see that happening, and if you’re wondering how antediluvian my judgment is, just turn to China Miéville’s “Forward Thinking,” on page 80. I surmise that this piece is meant to be funny. It had always struck me as odd that, as a child, I had no interest in reading at all, aside from the odd Hardy Boys mystery; the desire to read passionately and all the time began with and somewhat pre-empted puberty, and I never read books that weren’t meant for grown-ups (although it would be years before I understood them). Now I understand that I was simply keeping myself safe. ”Of course,” writes Miéville, “the stories that got you all to hush, in kindergarten, were the ones that contained exactly the elements which you still seek out. In that class full of six-year-olds, everyone was into dinosaurs and/or magic and/or Saturday-morning monsters, just like you.” Not just like me; I was over there in the Nuisance Corner, incapable of being quiet through any kind of story.