While never vile like the recent “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” John Madden’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is another reminder that a good “intersecting stories”-style ensemble movie is nearly impossible to make. Here is a film that boasts a capable director, a fine cast of British actors, and a beloved source novel. But it collapses under the weight of its own structure, which nary allows the characters a spare moment to breathe and individuate themselves from one another.
It’s a simple case of forcing too many prominent characters into one story. Just introducing everyone is a task in and of itself — one by one, Madden runs through their names and provides vignettes of their lives, before the film’s title finally graces the screen nearly 20 minutes in.
Later, we learn that the seven British senior citizens–played by the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Judi Dench, and Maggie Smith–aren’t the only people that director Madden has to keep tabs on. The group flies to India, where they plan to live out their lives at an “outsourced” retirement community that just so happens to house even more characters, from the proprietor (“Slumdog Millionaire”’s Dev Patel) to his mother to his girlfriend to her brother and so on.
With so many characters for the viewer to keep track of, Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker are forced to give each of them only one defining trait, which unsurprisingly results in their utter one-dimensionality. Nighy and Penelope Wilton have marriage problems — there’s nothing more to their relationship than that. Tom Wilkinson is a gay man who in his youth had a summer romance with an Indian lover, which when discovered caused the man to be shamed by his community. Maggie Smith needs a hip replacement. Yada, yada, yada.
The point being, these characters never develop because they aren’t really characters in the first place — they are but names and faces assigned single-sentence backstories and sub-plots. As such, the actors are forced to play to basic emotions. Wilkinson, for instance, laments the fact that he didn’t do anything to aid his Indian lover and yearns for a reunion. The role amounts to posturing for audience sympathy — no broader illumination of how the past has affected his life over the years, no insight into what it meant to be gay in the 1960s. Had the movie focused on only Wilkinson’s Graham, those things would have come out; as it is, he stands a hollow shell of a man.
In spite of being marginalized, the cast deserve credit for exuding the rich screen presences for which they are famous, keeping matters pleasant. Maggie Smith is the only one of the bunch who is tasked with portraying the typical “cranky old lady”-stereotype, so the rest are free to provide warm, spirited deliveries. This keeps them from becoming full-on caricatures — a fate that one would have thought inevitable after reading the meager script. With the exception of Dev Patel, that is, who apparently thought the movie was a comedy and not a drama; his sitcom-esque theatrics as a stereotypical hyperactive Indian seem epically out-of-place.
The only element of the film that deserves raves is Ben Davis’ golden cinematography, which captures both the serenity and chaos of India (often simultaneously) in ways that few other films have. The way that Davis photographs heat is particularly impressive; “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” rivals “Do the Right Thing” in terms of its ability to make you want a glass of ice-water through visuals alone.
If we’ve learned anything from “Valentine’s Day,” “New Year’s Eve,” “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” and now “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” it’s that this ensemble format should not be attempted by any filmmaker less skilled than Robert Altman, who pioneered a superior version of it decades ago. Which is to say, hardly anyone.