Wednesday 1 April 2015

Retiring types: "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

"I'm old."
"You think you're old."
"Ah, twinkly-eyed regret/wisdom."
"Ooh, young man."

(Lines from the Best Exotic Marigold dialogue generator.)

The first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a thoroughly reactionary blockbuster, the doing of producers who'd noticed how India had opened up to Western investors, then started casting around for material that might draw in that older audience who they'd spotted had disproportionate amounts of disposable income on their hands - student loan debts, rent costs and soaring property prices presently rendering everybody else immobile. It made for brilliant business, yet an altogether tepid and condescending movie: an exotic extension of that A Place in the Sun-style property porn perpetuated in afternoon TV slots, lent extra marketing value by a cast of national treasures forced to look elsewhere for an alternative pension provider after concluding their work on the Bond and Harry Potter series.

Appropriately enough, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel opens in a Californian boardroom, with a meeting chaired by David Strathairn to determine whether this hotel lark will be a footnote or a franchise; the market having been tested and conquered, some form of brand expansion is now deemed in order. A second hotel for Dev Patel is the result, yet Film Two best resembles a rather loose and baggy tent, thrown up to accommodate the old gang as they're reunited ahead of their young host's upcoming nuptials. It's a little like sitting in the grounds of a retirement home for two hours: there's much wittering about tea and biscuits, a lot of banter (you can hardly call them jokes) about someone getting blind, deaf or closer to the grave, the occasional trip out for some sightseeing, and some built-in naptime in the form of several strands that barely register as human activity.

It soon becomes clear that this franchise intends to run on personality alone, handing out a single note to each of its performers and seeing how far they can stagger on with it. We're meant to cheer Bill Nighy's lovelorn decency, no matter that it most often registers as some form of constipation, and laugh our heads off at Dame Maggie Smith's relentless tartness. (One mild improvement on the original here: time in India has apparently cured her character of her comedy xenophobia, in much the same way time and experience cured NYPD Blue's Sipowicz of his racism.) With his untempered goodness-gracious-meing, Patel's Kapoor remains a middle-aged white guy's idea of what a 21st century Indian lad must act and sound like, informed less by on-the-ground reality than dim and distant memories of 1970s sitcoms: in a strand that boldly strives to cross Fawlty Towers with Curry and Chips, our boy gets into a terrible flap upon mistaking special guest star Richard Gere for a hotel inspector - and Patel doesn't have the clout or chops to push against the half-wittedness of the character as written.

The inspector, when he finally calls, notes the "surreally haphazard" nature of Patel's operation, adding "the fact you get away with it is testament to the great affection in which [the hotel] is held". This sounds suspiciously like the review the filmmakers were hoping to get, and like the one they have got in many quarters, which still doesn't make The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - fuck me, I'm ageing just typing the title - entirely fit for purpose. If anything, these responses strike me as a reflection of how our perceptions of a film are now routinely skewed by industry business: an assertion that if it gets punters out of their houses and through the door, some case has to be made for it. Just because The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel have been embraced by the notoriously ill-served demographic at which it's been laser-targeted, it shouldn't excuse them from the obvious charge of being embarrassing rubbish: hell, even the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau Grumpy Old Men films had more spine, spunk and wit going for them than this lazy old claptrap.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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