The hit film from John “Shakespeare in Love” Madden takes a highly comedic, un-airbrushed look at the realities of the aging process. Lured by an advert inviting them to “come and spend your autumn years in an Indian Palace," Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith lead a mostly British all-star cast, all “of a certain age” and facing personal crises, across several ponds to the greener pastures that they believe await them at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful.
And we, in our living rooms in the U.S., are hooked from the opening scene, which zooms in on Dench on infinity hold until a call-center operator finally picks up and helplessly and heartlessly attempts to solve her high-tech snafu. (Two bits of foreshadowing there, btw.) Slowly the premise becomes clear, and by the time the troupe of strangers land with a physical and emotional thump in their new homeland on the Subcontinent, our affection for them is knitting as surely as theirs is for one another.
It gives nothing away to say that the “Palace” is less than promised. And India is experienced as either a noisy, chaotic, filthy, depressing, terrifying bad acid trip or the richest, most hopeful, comical, spiritual, sensory overload one could hope for. The challenges that the residents of the dilapidated hotel face and which force them to a critical, make-or-break point in their own lives underscores Heraclitus’s timeless observation that character is destiny.
The themes the movie addresses are a round-up of pretty much every issue people today face in the aging process: investments going bust, insufficient funds, debt, the sudden death of a spouse and being left unprepared for retirement, the desire for career reinvention, the need for major surgery but the inability to pay for it, self-doubt about one’s vitality and usefulness, plus all manner of angst swirling around sexuality, divorce and love, both requited and un-.
While these are universal concerns that even the spate of youth-cult movies take on (if with far broader comedic strokes), when told from the perspective of 60- and 70something-year-olds, they come into sharper focus because of the characters’ realizations that they no longer have all the time in the world in which to resolve them.
The film's impact also derives from the sheer brilliance of the script, Madden’s direction and the mastery of these actors. What Maggie Smith can do with just her eyes, or Tom Wilkinson with a stammer or Bill Nighy with a grimace, young actors would do well to study. There aren't things you pick up overnight; they come not merely from playing a spectrum of roles but from decades of living.
The cartoony Indian characters and over-the-top Bollywood-like backdrops, often filmed with literally dizzying camerawork, provide a lot of the humor, but they also serve a deeper function. The culture shock is so intense, yet inescapable, that these veddy British people are forced to shapeshift personally to adapt to this extremely foreign environment. Depending on how they interact, they either go more boldly (and joyously) through life, or they go home.
It's not just cultures that clash. Traditional Indian values threaten to quash the dreams of young moderns, and in a nice twist, it's some of the older Brits who come to their emotional rescue.
Integral to the film’s message is the stunning beauty of the actors, all of whom are (or certainly appear to be) aging without cosmetic, shall we say, enhancement? What a rare and wonderful experience to look at faces deeply etched with lines, freckled with age spots and sagging so artfully, whose nuanced expressions convey such depth of experience and emotion. The collective overdose of Botox, fillers and surgeries has robbed some once fine Hollywood actors of this authenticity.
And with one notable exception, no one of the cast is out of the Hollywood-bod mold. There’s extra poundage, scrawniness, hairiness and baldness, and it only adds to the believability, and vulnerability, and desirability, of the characters. For those of us who embrace the body’s natural aging process, it’s a proud high-five. And for those still resisting, it’s the best unspoken argument to let it go, baby!
In an era where we can’t go a day without hearing some doomsayer forecast the end of the world as we know it or describe a generation slip-sliding into decrepitude, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, with its life-affirming optimism, is the best antidote on the market. Even if it you saw in the theaters, it's a safe bet that you'll laugh just as hard the second time around.