Review: Dreary ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ Makes Case for Dying Young

Most of my life, I’ve looked forward to growing old. It seems like it could be a kick, what with wearing clothes that shock the neighbors, developing unreasonable and unyielding demands, and devising new ways to irritate and embarrass my children.

A good time, all around.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a film opening today, changed all that.

Billed as a quirky and whimsical comedy about growing old, it is so dull and unaware of its own messages that it passes being not funny and becomes downright depressing.

Suddenly, dying young doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

The problem isn’t with the setup, at least in theory. Beset by financial woes, seven British retirees agree to “outsource aging” and move to a luxury hotel in vibrant India. The brain child of Sonny (a charming Dev Patel), the idea is that since industrious and creative Indians have taken on all the jobs Westerners no longer want to do, why not add caring for the elderly to the list?

It’s a classic fish out of water setup, flashing with vibrant saris and the aroma of spicy food.

Mrs. Greenslade (all the residents speak to each other using surnames, being British and all) has just lost her husband, only to discover that he left her no money and a pile of unresolved debts. She is played by the sublime Judi Dench. Maggie Smith plays Ms. Donnelly, a downright racist woman who plans to return to England posthaste as soon as those yucky Indian doctors replace her hip on the cheap.

The troop is rounded out by a retired judge (Tom Wilkinson), an unhappily married couple (Billy Nighy and Penelope Wilton) and a matched set of a lascivious playboy (Ronald Pickup) and gold-digging playgirl (Celia Imrie), who respect each other’s tactics but are not a couple.

The problem also is not with the lead Judi Dench. At 77, she has a fantastic assortment of wrinkles and more than a little thickness in the waist. Yet, with her big, blue eyes and expressive manner, she fills up the screen better than girls half – scratch that – a quarter of her age. I could watch her all day.

The British fish in Indian waters story is supposed to be whimsical and adventurous, but the decampment of elderly people to a whole new land never rises above mildly unsettling. Some of the characters have grown children, some do not, but in teeming India they are wholly alone. At least the aged Indians squatting in huts have family and friends who care if they live or die.

Ms. Donnelly, for instance, has a moment of unintended tragedy when she goes to the hospital, alone, to have surgery. She’s cared for, but there’s no one pacing the waiting room. After recovering, she returns to the hotel, alone. She is a woman with the entire Indian population to potentially serve her but not a single person to love her.

It’s not supposed to be heartrending, but it is. The very idea of having surgery without one caring friend or family member fluttering around to bring flowers, to harass the doctors, or to lie about how well I’m looking fills my heart with dread.

So much for magic and adventure. The film makes the case that one’s own flat with a nice cup of tea and a dear friend or two is worth more than the entire world, although it was trying to make the opposite case.

The second troubling ethos of the movie is the idea that these Baby Boomers, in their 60s and 70s, are still trying to find themselves. As the movie progresses, one gay character comes to terms with a romance of his youth and others come to terms with their failed relationships. Everybody embraces change and new frontiers. It’s supposed to be sweet, but it made me wonder how miserable their lives must have been for the last 50 years. All those decades were just wasted time?

Seriously, shoot me if I reach 70 and still am looking to find myself.

News flash for Boomers: You have already found yourself. Whatever you are, that is you. If you’ve embraced duty or shirked it, found love or avoided it, sacrificed for children or failed them, chased worthwhile passions or empty ones, that is you.

The end of life is for basking in the glow of a life well lived or atoning for failures – or probably for most of us – some combination of the two.

Listening to those seniors babbling on about new beginnings and psychoanalyzing themselves made me impatient with their selfishness. These characters are still very much the Me Generation, absorbed in contemplating the lint in their own navels.

At least one character, one you’d least expect,  connects with another human being in a real way and finds a way to make herself useful to humanity in the time she has left.

She can come back to the West. The rest of the lot, they can just stay in India. Good riddance.

Rated PG-13 for (implied and discussed) sexuality and language.

  • Willie

    Interesting Article.

  • kenneth

    If I’m not still working to find myself and re-create myself at 70, I’ll do myself and the world a favor and miscount my sleeping pills by a decimal place or two. If all you’re supposed to do at some arbitrary “old age” is to accept that you’re nothing more than the sum of your past, you’re just waiting for death, and if that’s the case, there’s no point in waiting for it.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Pushback. I love it. Thanks for giving an honest and thought provoking reply.

      I think there’s a difference between still growing and learning and being useful and this notion of trying to figure out what you’re all about. It’s like being a teenager forever. Who am I? What do I want out of life? At some point, what you have is what you got.

      I totally agree there is no value in “just waiting for death.” Which, to my thinking, is the opposite of this movie. Working, whether paid or not, being of use to your family, volunteering, learning, those are valuable. A long, protracted retirement with no purpose, well, seems awful to me. Which is sort of what this movie is about.

      • Sagrav

        We form our own purposes in life. Since you value having family around, the life depicted in this movie (that I hadn’t even heard about until this blog post) would be pretty miserable to you. It doesn’t sound so bad to me. I have affection for my family, but I would find myself very irritated if I had to spend the final elderly years of my life dependent on them. It sounds much better to go retire to someplace nice and while away the time with pleasant activities until some vital organ finally busts and my mind blinks out forever. I definitely wouldn’t want to keep working. Toil is a necessary evil to me. It is the thing I do so that I can avoid it on the weekends.

        I agree that it’s silly to keep trying to “find” yourself past your teenage years. Beyond a point, there is little else to find. Your opinions will shift and evolve over time, but most people aren’t going to have some wonderful epiphany in their adult years that suddenly injects magical purpose into their lives.

        • Rebecca Cusey

          There’s a difference between dependence and connection, but in general, I think you’re right.

          Although…I think we have to face the fact that we’ll be dependent on someone if we live long enough. I’d rather have it be on someone who loves me than on someone who’s paid to care for me. Not saying that I want my kids to tend me every waking hour. I certainly wouldn’t want to burden them with that and have plans to prevent that. But I do hope they look after me, should I live long enough to warrant it.

  • regular joe

    Daaaang, that’s a good review, and good cultural commentary. And thanks for helping me avoid this thing, who could possibly wish to see self indulgent boomers navel gaze and try to discover just what kind of special little snow flake they are in Old Age. Yech. It would seem obvious that an unending search for New Beginnings is just a way of avoiding doing anything of worth, substituting novelty for depth and making The Grass is Greener on the Other Side of the Fence a personal motto rather than cautionary wisdom. Adapt to circumstance, live fully the life you have at whatever age, sure. Visionquest and coming of age at 60, then 70, then 90? Nope.

  • Carlos Jayne

    It was a great movie. The audience applauded at the end. All handicapped spots were filled and my wife and I waited for all the persons with canes as we left. Didn’t see many under AARP eligibility there. Most of them probably think there is nothing to what the elderly feel about their status in life. The reviewer’s comment that referred to the sefishness of those seeking new beginnings showed a complete lack of understanding of what older people go through as setbacks seem to implode their lives. Thank God a sense of humor enables some who are aging to see things in a comedic way.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      I’m glad you liked it Carlos. I’m not putting down old people. I hope to be one someday!

      I just see these characters as still inherently self-focused and me-oriented.

  • Cal reader

    This review was quite irritating and seemed to miss the point of the movie. I believe that the filmmakers did want to emphasize the importance of human connections — that was exactly the Mrs. Donnelly story arc. As for old age being for “basking in the glow of a life well lived or atoning for failures”, well what do you think the judge was doing? And certainly, Mrs. Greenslade would have preferred to bask in the glow of her life near to her children, but circumstances forced her to do otherwise. The movie was filled with older people trying to deal with their circumstances in the most productive way possible. Only a very young person would think that the end of life will be lived exactly as planned, without health or financial setbacks or betrayal by a partner. This film is rewarding — and unusual — because it shows older characters dealing with end of life issues.

    • Donna

      I agree, Cal! I loved it, and not only because it reminded me of my brief time in India. (Though that is reason enough to see the movie.) I find it encouraging and exciting that even in old age I won’t be too old to continue to grow, change, and resolve old conflicts within and beyond myself. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie again before it leaves the theaters.

  • Phoenix

    I was invited today out of the blue to go see this movie. I quickly checked for reviews online and found yours. After reading it this morning, I almost didn’t bother, but wanting to get out, I went. I’m so glad I did, and I’m so glad I didn’t let your negative review sway me.
    I can tell you are very young. Full disclosure: I am not so young.
    Only someone still very young would actually believe that if you are very, very careful, make only good choices, work hard all your life, take care of yourself, are supportive of your family and your community, involved, thinking, caring, prudent, plan carefully, that things will turn out at least somewhat as you’ve planned and that you are somehow guaranteed a pleasing dotage, living out your last years in at least comfortable if not plush surroundings, with all your loved ones nearby.
    I come from a large and loving family, no divorce, no infidelity, all close, actually friends with each other, and financially comfortable if not rich. I married my childhood sweetheart and wanted a big family of my own, but only could have one child, so I fostered six more. Loved them all and they loved me. Worked hard at a fascinating profession for over twenty years, was laid off following unforeseen financial troubles, earned another degree, found a new job, never missed church, stayed involved in the community and schools, moved into my beloved childhood home, saved and made careful investments over the long years. Going on five years ago, I suffered an infection that destroyed my health. I’ve been fighting back, but I will probably never be well and strong again. I lost my job, my insurance, and spent most of my retirement accounts on my illness and recovery. I’m trying to find a way not to lose my home, but its doubtful. After 36 years of marriage, I’ve learned my spouse has had a long affair, so as I near retirement age, it seems I will do so as an impoverished, ill, divorcee. The foster kids all reconciled with their families or they moved on. I only hear from one of them and there is a lot of love, but she can’t help me, she has a family of her own, lives 1,000 miles away and is busy. My son married six years ago. His wife believes, literally, that a son is a son until he takes a wife, and she told me so the day of their wedding. Her mother and her family are her world, her culture is the only desired culture, I am the wrong color, wrong nationality, wrong religion, and I am an unwanted intrusion into her world. I just want to see my son and grandkids once a year. My son manages that much so far as he has a successful career, but he travels and works overseas and is not home as much as he would like, and they’ve moved a continent away.
    Life happens. There are many circumstances beyond your control. People you love die. I lost 22 members of my family, and we were all truly loving and close, both parents, all grandparents, all my uncles and aunts, most of my cousins, in a four and a half year period starting when I was 28 years old. Some times the funerals were only a couple of weeks apart. But I picked myself up and I still built a good life, but not the life I thought I’d have, and now, apparently not the life I am facing.
    So, how do you deal with adversity? How do you handle grief? Betrayal? What do you do when despite your best efforts, things do not turn out as you planned, not even close? What choices do you make when your options are limited, your funds depleted, your health compromised, you are in unfamiliar surroundings, you’re old, and you are alone? These are some of the things that this movie addresses. I watched it and I cried. Well, I laughed too. This movie reminded me that how we face our circumstances is at least as important as the circumstances we face. It is a beautiful series of interrelated stories and ultimately it is uplifting.
    Someday Rebecca, if you are very lucky, you too may have a wrinkled face, be broke and alone and vulnerable, yet still somehow pick up the pieces of a shattered life and still find that your heart still loves, you have all your marbles, and despite it all, you still find you somehow can find good things and people, that there is hope for love and meaning every new day, no matter how many days you have behind and how very few days you may have ahead.
    “Everything will be all right in the end…if it’s not all right then it’s not the end.” Indeed. ;)

  • JO

    Isn’t it sad that your lack of vision and shallow mindedness prevented you from enjoying this most rewarding and lovely film.