The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a remarkably unassuming and assured character adventure that follows the lives of a group of retirees who make a pilgrimage to India for what they expect to be their final home away from home. Things are immediately not at all what they appear and quickly go from bad to worse – there are no easy roads to happy ever after, despite what you might read in brochures. As the hapless group tries to settle in they realize final destinations have a way of unsettling the best made plans. Best Exotic is as much about perceptions as it is expectations, about the nether space between what is said and what is done in the name of tradition, change and circumstance. Part retirement home, part getaway and retreat, the hotel is stuck between what it was and what it could be – driven by a well-intentioned if not naïve young owner, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire“) who dreams of more but is tethered by less. Before the next chapter of their lives can begin, the group is forced to confront their own sense of personal identity and truth and this has far more consequences than anyone seems prepared to deal with. Character films rely almost entirely on the strength of the actors, then from a competent director, and this gives Best Exotic all that it really needs to be successful. Competent and charismatic, there is chemistry and smart dialog, poignant deliveries and seemingly random pauses – all the things you’d hope to find in such places. In a time when action/adventure films push characters further and further away from you and me approachable, erode understandable and personal spaces, it’s refreshing to get to know characters through intimate relationships and lasting emotions in place of expensive explosions.
Best Exotic is a great character film but it won’t reach a lot of people who would rather fight alien portals with hammers and indestructible comic book attitudes. It’s a shame really but that’s the way it goes. Thankfully for the rest of us we’ll find an ensemble cast of amazing veteran performers with impressive careers that seem perfect preparations to inhabit the lives of these characters. The gifted actors infuse the story with believable, relatable personalities that each in their own way reminds us of people we know or knew, people like us hidden in plain sight, locked away in our refusal to stay the same or change forever, desperate to be fulfilled by the greatest adventure – of knowing ourselves intimately and embracing what we find there. Best Exotic thrives on the funny bits between dramatic bits, weaving careful comedy with serious situations, the best kind of storytelling. The film feels like an invitation to visit with old friends where we are respected and appreciated for no other reason than for sticking around.
Sometimes the more rewarding films are the least exciting, less about grand destinations and explosive situations and more focused on the blossoming spirit of people interrupted and lives constructed. These films don’t set out to be different or to change your mind, they are unimposing and gentle reminders of the power of art to mirror our own wants and wishes, to capture for a little while the fleeting dreams and everyday possibility of where we’ve been and maybe, if we’re lucky, a chance to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances and be happy that we did.
Best Exotic captures the quiet moments in life that don’t always take you by surprise but remind you life’s a journey without a destination. It captures moments without resorting to telling you how to feel, showing effortlessly the genuine and gentle way people discover and share the subject of mortality, aging and lifelong resolutions. When you finally arrive somewhere altogether different at the end, and in that checking in with life sort of way that leaves you with a little smile and the warmth of knowing anything is possible if you try, movies can matter more than the sum of their outward accomplishes and even in a lot of ways in spite of the quietude.
Populating the film with a string of the finest actors anywhere gives Best Exotic its greatest asset, in-depth characters that are fueled by actors who have a lot of life living experiences to bring to the role. It’s as though we’re visiting with those friends and family again for a couple of hours, exchanging stories and moments, agreeing to disagree and smiling about the little things. Judy Dench and Tom Wilkinson are perfect together, the world of the story with a kind and gentle quality between them, engaging as much as disarming the seriousness of the reality of what they are going through. It’s difficult to make a film about the aging even as it is difficult to keep our aging matinée idols and big screen personalities working in an industry that alienates the old, distances their leading roles, shoveling them off for younger at the cost of brighter. Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy make the most of silences, their wounded wanderings, their matching of wits and scenarios, the chasm between lives just beginning and those on the precipice of change, death; foregone conclusions when all we really want is to share time together.
It is there after all is said and done, emotions witnessed and moments cherished in the simple truth of obstacles and opportunities that we can find our way into our own Best Exotic experiences and destinations, longingly for what we already have – our togetherness across miles and differences of years and travels, people and places and memories made. Perhaps it is asking too much for everyone to appreciate this film even as much as it would benefit them beyond their imaginations, but for a little while it is enough to find joy in the little things and movies that make them more than passing silences in our lives.