"I just want to feel young again."
So says retiree Norman Cousins, one of seven aging Brits who've responded to an Internet advertisement for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in Jaipur, India.
What they discover when they get there is exotic. "Can there be anywhere else in the world that is such an assault on the senses?" wonders widow Evelyn Greenslade.
As for being the best, well, that's another story.
Upon their arrival in Jaipur, the hotel guests discover a dated, dusty, dilapidated residence, a property bequeathed to a young dreamer named Sonny Kapoor. Sonny hopes to restore the hotel to its former glory. But it's not quite there yet.
"You Photoshopped it," one guest objects.
"I have offered a vision of the future," Sonny counters.
And that tension, the tension between former glory and what the future holds, is at the heart of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. All seven guests are trying to make sense of lives that have left them disillusioned, broken and lonely. At the same time, some dare to hope that the days remaining might be better than the ones behind.
Evelyn spent 40 years doing whatever her husband told her to do. Only now is she discovering who she really is.
Muriel has traveled to India for a hip transplant she can have immediately there, as opposed to waiting months back in England. It's a tricky venture for her, though, seeing as how she despises anyone whose skin color is different from hers.
Douglas and Jean lost their retirement savings in their daughter's failed Internet startup. So this struggling couple is trying to make sense of their disappointment about what their golden years will bring. Douglas is a gentle, quiet soul striving to make the most of each day. To do that, however, he must contend with his wife's acidic bitterness, which threatens to poison everything.
Norman wants nothing more than to find someone he can love—which, in his way of thinking, means someone he can have lots of sex with.
Madge is looking for the same thing. But Norman's not her type.
Graham, a recently retired judge, is on a quest to reconnect with the man he had an affair with four decades before.
It's a jarring, disorienting journey for all involved. "Trying to get your bearings in India," says Evelyn, "is like trying to stand up in the ocean as waves roll toward you. Resist them, and they'll knock you down." Or, she suggests, you can "dive in and swim out the other side."
All of the hotel guests will get knocked down. Some will decide to dive in. And a few will make it out the other side.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel grapples with the question, "How will you cope with change and loss?"
Evelyn, who's lived a sheltered existence for decades, begins to take risks and embraces the newness of the Indian world around her. "We must celebrate the changes," she says. That means trying new things, such as getting a job in an Indian call center (because, as she discovers, her husband squandered their money before he died).
Evelyn also begins to blog about her experiences in India, wherein we hear her optimistic assessment of how she wants to face life. "The only real failure is the failure to try," she writes, "and the measure of success is how we cope with disappointment, as we must." It doesn't matter if we feel that we're "too old, too scared and disappointed … we get up in the morning. We do our best. Nothing else matters."
The journey Evelyn takes requires her to overcome denial about how much some of life's inevitable disappointments really hurt. When one member of their group dies, she says of their collective grief, "Is it our friend we are grieving for? Or is it our own loss that we are mourning? Have we traveled far enough that we can allow tears to fall?"
Meanwhile, Sonny's mantra is, "It will be all right in the end. If it's not all right now, it must not be the end." Regarding his hotel plans, he says, "Nothing happens unless first we dream." He doesn't feel he's earned girlfriend Sunaina's love. In the end, though, he tells her, "Only by loving you as you deserve will I become [worthy]."
Muriel harbors a deep streak of racism. But as she develops a relationship with the servant girl who brings her food each day, her heart melts and expands. She ends up helping Sonny with the hotel.
Evelyn and Douglas (both of whom have had difficult marriages that included deception) hear a story about a couple that communicates everything. "No secrets," Evelyn says of them. "Makes me realize how much I'd failed [my husband], Hugh. What use is a marriage if nothing is shared?"
We see a statue of the Buddha. Paintings of Hindu gods are glimpsed in the background. Douglas mentions in passing that he spent the day meditating at a temple. Chanted morning prayers are heard at sunrise. Two people bow and greet one another with the Indian Namaste, which has religious overtones. Someone tells Muriel that the young woman who serves her food is of the untouchable caste, and that "to a good Hindu, even her shadow is polluted." We see a burning pyre at the conclusion of a traditional Hindu cremation ceremony.
Graham has returned to India because 40 years earlier he became intimate with a young Indian man. The pair fell asleep outside one night and were discovered the next morning, bringing shame upon the man's family. Graham quickly returned to England, but always wondered what happened to his lover. Now, after a long search, Graham finds the man, who is married. We see them hug.
Graham tells several people about that relationship. "I'm gay," he says to Evelyn. "More in theory than in practice." And he says to Norman of the years since seeing his friend, "All that time I thought I'd sentenced him to a life of shame. But I was in prison. But not any more."
Never mind that she's married, Jean has a crush on Graham, going so far as flirting with him. Her romantic hopes are dashed when Graham confesses his sexual preferences.
Sunaina promises to sneak in some night and wake Sonny up "in that special way." And she tries to make good, too, slinking into the hotel and stripping off her clothes (we see her underwear fall to the floor and her bare back) before she climbs into bed with the person she thinks is Sonny. Turns out she's climbed in with Madge instead, prompting the other woman to joke about having a "midnight booty call" and say it's the "most action I've had in weeks."
At a posh club, Madge lies to another aging woman about having had a passionate night with Norman years ago. In reality, she's trying (in her odd, duplicitous way) to set him up with her. It works. Norman and the woman hook up for a night of passion ("I've seen the top of the mountain, and it is good," Norman later tells Madge), which leads to an ongoing relationship as Norman then moves in with her. Conversations about Norman's sex life include mentions of Viagra and the risks of sex for aging participants. He's seen reading the Kama Sutra and practicing (while clothed) the various sexual positions he's learning about. We also briefly see Norman dancing happily in the shower (from the waist up, with nothing critical shown) in front of an open window where Madge can see the same thing viewers do.
Passing verbal references are made to phone sex, prostitutes and brothels. A poster visually hints at erectile dysfunction. Madge alludes to having had multiple extramarital affairs.
A heart attack claims one life.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word. Five misuses of God's name, along with an exclamation of "good lord." We hear a couple uses of the British vulgarities "bloody" and "s-dding."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Many scenes (in social contexts mostly) involve various alcoholic drinks (frequently wine). Mention is made of a potent apple-tobacco drink. Norman smokes a cigar.
Other Negative Elements
Evelyn and Douglas lament how much you can't know about your spouse's secrets, even after decades of marriage. "One wants to trust in general," Douglas observes. "But you never really know."
Sonny's relationship with his mother is fraught with conflict over their generational differences. At one point as he's trying to convince her that he wants to marry Sunaina because he loves her, his mother retorts, "Love is not a good reason to get married."
After a spicy Indian meal, characters sprint to their respective hotel room bathrooms and close the doors.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel could have been a delightful, engaging story, even a deeply inspiring one.
Seven struggling, aging Brits end up in India trying to make existential sense of where and how their lives went wrong and what they can do from here on out to make sure they don't end their days in despair. And actress Judi Dench's portrayal of widow Evelyn Greenslade is the bright spot here as she consistently faces life with hope, optimism and openness to new experiences.
The film also offers, perhaps inadvertently, what could be seen as a parable about the gaping vacuum of meaning in the secular way of life. With the exception of Douglas' brief references to meditation, none of the characters pursue any kind of spiritual meaning. Instead, they largely place their whole hope for lasting happiness in romance and, even more frequently, sex.
Norman strikes up a relationship with a new woman that's based completely on sex. And when someone questions whether it's too soon for them to be shacking up, Norman says they don't have time not to move in together. Madge seems to be on a similar trajectory. And Graham hopes to free himself from 40 years of closeted regret by rediscovering the homosexual lover of his youth.
Meanwhile, bile-filled Jean suggests that the only way for her and Douglas to find true happiness is to part ways—a sadly prophetic prescription that's reinforced when Douglas happily ends up with Evelyn. As for Sonny, his determination to pursue a relationship with Sunaina (with whom he's already having sex) requires spurning his (admittedly controlling) mother and doing things his way.
Evelyn's and Sonny's irrepressible optimism in the face of change and uncertainty is admirable. But when you look closer at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it's clear that the self-absorbed and sometimes blatantly immoral decisions these characters make, not to mention the individualistic stances they take toward finding meaning in life, aren't nearly as flowery.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Judi Dench as Evelyn Greenslade; Tom Wilkinson as Graham Dashwood; Bill Nighy as Douglas Ainslie; Penelope Wilton as Jean Ainslie; Maggie Smith as Muriel Donnelly; Ronald Pickup as Norman Cousins; Celia Imrie as Madge Hardcastle; Dev Patel as Sonny Kapoor; Tena Desae as Sunaina; Lillete Dubey as Mrs. Kapoor
John Madden (The Debt, Proof, Shakespeare in Love)
May 4, 2012
Adam R. Holz Adam R. Holz