Best Exotic Marigold Hotel both Delights and Offends

Directed by John Madden
PG-13, 129 mins. (Participant Media/Fox Searchlight)

* * *

Seven elderly Brits find themselves facing their twilight years under less-than-ideal circumstances. Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) has just lost her husband; Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is a cynical judge facing forced retirement; Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) is a racist battleaxe who needs a hip replacement she can’t afford; Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) is a randy old satyr whose act has grown stale in England; Marge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) has grown weary of being the live-in babysitter for her grandchildren and would like to find herself a sugar daddy; and Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) lost their golden nest egg by investing it in their daughter’s Internet startup company. Seven old people–each in need of a major life change before shuffling off this mortal coil. And each in possession of a slick brochure promising a new way to spend one’s declining years in pampered luxury. All one has to get to Jangipur, India, where one can be cared for amidst the splendor of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful.

From this setup we already know three things: that nobody will be quite what they seem, that things will not go as planned, and that some of the characters will be underdeveloped. Regarding the last point, if we toss in hotel owner Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire), his girlfriend Sunaina (Tena Desae), and his domineering mother (Lilete Dubey), that makes ten majors for a film that’s just a shade over two hours. It’s inevitable that several of them will be painted with very broad strokes. It also means that much of what we encounter in the film will be formulaic and predictable. Start with films such as Shirley Valentine, Enchanted April, A Passage to India, The Piano, Heat and Dust, and The Jewell in the Crown and one could assemble a yearlong film festival on the theme of cold-hearted English people who thaw when exposed to warm climes. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel falls firmly into that genre.

Of the principles, only those played by Wilkinson, Dench, Nighy, and Wilton have a lot to do, though Maggie Smith (predictably) gets to “surprise” us toward the end by–you guessed it–being transformed by India. Wilkinson, who is always a marvel, plays his part to hangdog perfection. He’s mystery man Dashwood, the only person who had actually been to India before. When he was a feckless youth he lived in Jangipur and fell into forbidden love with a local man. Although his traveling companions think him the height of respectability and wisdom–and two of the women would like to have a go at him–he’s actually there to track down his Indian lover whose life he presumes he ruined. But it is Greenslade who really settles in. The film’s narrative is often advanced through her blog, though how she goes from not knowing how to use a computer to being an advanced blogger is one of many things left unexplained. Some of the best drama lies in the dynamics of the Ainslies. Wilton–last viewed by most as Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey–is positively insufferable as the Brit who hates India, Indians, the food, the weather, and pretty much everything else. Nighy is her cool contrast–outwardly ineffectual, silently enthusiastic, and inexorably moving away from his wife and toward Evelyn. The rest of the characters are there for window dressing and comic relief, some of the latter on the cheap side (aches and pains, Viagra jokes, old girl on-the-make, etc.).

As noted, a whole lot of this film plays out exactly as one would have predicted. We give away nothing by telling you that the gap between the brochure and the actual hotel is vast. The banter between characters is frequently witty and sharp, though it is due more to having assembled some of the best actors on the planet than to Ol Parker’s screenplay. In fact, in the hands of lesser actors, this film might have been an embarrassment. It trades in tons of stereotypes about the elderly. Even worse are those involving Indians. (Did the Brits not hear the complaints about Slumdog Millionaire, or do they just not care?) Let’s see: a fast-talking but dishonest hotelkeeper, rooms full of telephone solicitors, cute beggars, five-alarm food, poor-but-happy slum dwellers, rampant corruption….

For all of the criticism, though, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is an enjoyable way to spend a few hours. Above all it’s a testament to how great actors can make a slag heap look like a pile of diamonds. And here’s the other thing. We saw a 2 pm matinee in a large theater that was two-thirds full. All subsequent shows were sold out and it’s been packing them in for almost two weeks now. Most of the people in line were over 50. Think there’s an age demographic that’s been underserved and is hungry to see films that aren’t filled with guns, f/x, and pretty-but-vacuous actors? Yep!  


Liberals Should Stop Feeling Sorry for Idiots

Today's Working Class: Mr. Block Triumphant! 

File this one in the drawer marked “Has anyone paying attention for the past 40 years?” Gary Younge’s recent piece for the Guardian reveals that poor white Americans prefer Mitt Romney to Barack Obama by a 58% to 32% margin. The Guardian is a British paper, but its coverage of American politics is generally more astute than anything found in the United States, and that includes the good, gray (and vastly overrated) New York Times. This time, though, the Guardian sinks to simplistic analysis worthy of Fox News.

Okay, I exaggerate. Unlike Fox, Younge got quite a few things right. He’s spot on when noting that this isn’t new; Bush won the blue-collar and poor vote by roughly the same margin. So did John McCain. Younge doesn’t push it back much further, though he could. The working-class poor began to abandon the Democrats en masse in the 1960s and for many of the same reasons as today–they were seduced into thinking that social and cultural concerns were more important than power relations. In truth, though, their presence in the New Deal Coalition was  tenuous from the get-go. They could be found in big numbers among the Dixiecrats resisting civil rights after World War II and in the George Wallace campaign of 1968. Millions more voted for Nixon that year, and for Reagan in 1980 and 1984. They were perfect fodder for the come-to-Jesus snake oil salesmen of the age of cable.

Younge suggests that liberals don’t understand the poor or blue-collar workers very well. I agree, but the problem is the opposite of the contempt and condescension he notes. At this point I should reveal that I grew up working-class poor and am now a labor historian. I have been equally guilty of the liberals’ primary sin toward the lower classes: romanticism. That is to say, liberals and academics have been among the worst offenders of allowing the working class to avoid taking responsibility for self-created conditions. By casting the working class as deceived rather than deluded, as seduced rather than a willing bed partners, as victims rather than participants, lots of well-meaning folks have become enablers when they should have been critics.

Younge notes (correctly) that the Democrats don’t exactly offer an irresistible economic plan for the poor, but he and I part company when he says that viewing social class in economic terms alone is condescending. What Karl Marx observed 140 years ago is just as true today–class-consciousness is a prerequisite for class formation. There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as the working class anymore. Younge would have us excuse the myopia that leads workers to focus on social issues while ignoring their objective economic reality. He’d also label liberal misunderstanding a greater sin than the blockhead mentality that thinks saving the country from gay marriages, prayerless schools, or taxes, or abortion, or teachers’ unions, or [fill in a paranoid single cause here] is more important than the very objective, material realities that undergird social class. Too much of today’s working class is, as the Industrial Workers of the World labeled it in the early 20th century, the embodiment of Mr. Block–the industrial slave who thinks highly of his boss/master. (How’s that GOP trickle-down thing working out for y’all?)

I’ll play apostate. It’s time for liberals to call out such nonsense and hold those who can think accountable for their behavior. I’m all for helping those who can’t help themselves. I’m not so na├»ve as to think that anyone who wants a job in a nation with near-double-digit unemployment can get one. That said, a boorish lout is a boorish lout, whether he has an MBA from Harvard or carries a racist banner in a Tea Party rally in a played-out West Virginia coal town. Today’s working class is not the same one that led sit-down strikes in the 1930s; far too often it consists of Mr. Blocks willing to fan the flames of misogyny, homophobia, racism, anti-government paranoia, and slogan-slinging libertarianism. Younge decries the liberal critique that the lower classes are modern-day Know Nothings. Well, dammit, they are! Myopia is a single step removed from blindness. It’s even worse; it’s a self-induced loss of sight.

Here’s another reality. The blue-collar white working class is a dying anachronism. Walter Reuther and the sit-down strikers aren’t coming back. (Today’s autoworkers are as likely to be found among global warming deniers as on a picket line.) It’s time for liberals to step out of the red state/blue state dialogue and go purple. That is, stop making excuses for idiots and, by all means, stop wasting resources trying to organize those who don’t wish to be organized. It’s time for a new progressive coalition fashioned from 21st century reality, not mid-20th century dreams. What might it look like? One only has to look at demographics and, yes, economics. A liberal-led purple coalition would be female and ethnic, not male and Anglo. It would also galvanize lower-level professionals, service-industry workers, the involuntarily disadvantaged, and contingency workers; that is, those whose paychecks and material conditions lead to class-consciousness. Get these folks organized and maybe Mr. Block will put on a pair of glasses and take a hard look around.