|Dame Judith Dench in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"|
And all I kept thinking was, "This is exactly like the Anglican Church - a network of stoic, well-intentioned Brits with a great deal of civility doing their best to carry on amidst the ruins of a formerly great thing, despite an atmosphere of despair and the ongoing drain of moral relativism."
The movie has its quiet charms - lots of funny lines, excellent acting; it's a movie with a heart and an above-average character study, though at its best it's not much more than that.
But at its worst, it's really just The Big Chill for old folks.
If you remember The Big Chill - it was a very popular chick-flick from the early 1980's that was all about narcissistic hippies who were shocked to find themselves aging, but who solved all of their problems by coming up with their own morality - and if you liked it, then you'll like this movie.
But I hated The Big Chill. Granted, I only saw it once, thirty years ago, but it was one of the first mainstream movies to make light of drug use and to promote "open marriage" as a good thing. The selfishness of the characters involved was taken for granted, and never examined. It was a horribly self-indulgent movie with a message - Make Your Own Morals and Be Happy.
SPOILER ALERT FROM HERE ONE OUT.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel carries the same message. We are force-fed sympathy for a "gay" male character, whose happiest moment in life was an act of sodomy committed at the shore of a lake in India many years prior. When this character dies in the movie, he is given a Hindu burial ceremony by his gay lover and the gay lover's wife (who's tolerant of the whole thing, naturally) and cremated at this site, a site which "for them" was "holy", we are told by the film's narrator, without a trace of irony. Anal intercourse has now become the means to make people and places holy. How advanced we are!
Then there's the very predicable resolution of the unhappily married heterosexual couple, who get caught in a traffic jam on the way to the airport a good fifteen minutes before the end of the film, so that anyone who has seen enough Hollywood movies (and was hoping to avoid another one) can see that the wife will end up getting to the airport and back to England without the henpecked husband, who will naturally get to stay behind and have sex with Judi Dench - which for some reason he thinks is a good idea. Although the shrewish wife is one of the more interesting characters in the story, she functions in the plot as a witch who is holding back the happiness of her husband of 40 years, who can only be happy with Dame Judith.
Then there's the situation comedy depiction of the fornication of an old man - and fornication can be many things, but it's not a spiritual "mountain top" - which is how the character and the plot sells it to us in this movie. Naturally, all this old guy needs is one good roll in the hay and his life of loneliness and despair is cured, and his future look bright, despite what must be looming death, judging by how old the poor coot looks. (Perhaps the extra-marital sex does so much for him in this movie because it's with someone other than Judy Dench.)
And yet in the midst of the film's story, marriage is strangely both elevated and despised.
On the one hand, the young manager must stand up to his mother to marry the woman he loves (and had been sleeping with). I find it interesting that his battle to marry this girl is shown as a good thing, and the resolution is not complete until he claims her for his own. Thus marriage is important.
On the other hand, the end of a 40-year marriage is shown to be a better thing than whatever love and sacrifices held the couple together for so long; the aforementioned sodomy by the lake makes the very spot itself sacramental and a fit place for one of the gay lover's ashes to be spread ("Goody! I will find eternal rest in the lake where Punjab first performed oral sex on me!") and the cohabitation of fornicating seniors is seen as quite fitting. Thus, marriage is not important.
All in all, as I say, it's the Anglican Church in microcosm. For the movie, the run-down exotic hotel in the story, and the Anglican Church itself have the following in common - aesthetic sensibilities, an emphasis on propriety, and utter yet quiet hopelessness.
The message of our secular age and its decrepit quasi-Christian sects is that our only hope for happiness is in the existential assertion of our own rules to live by, our brave attempt to keep on keeping on despite our depression, and fleeting moments of sexual indulgence, the only thing that resembles a "mountain top" experience any more.
This is what we are told, both overtly and covertly, by pop culture all around us. This is what we are told will make us happy.
In American films we are told these things will make us perfectly happy. In more sophisticated British films, we are told these things will only make us marginally happy at that. That's because we're more like the young naive hotel manager; the Brits are more like the old folks in the movie, doing their best but vaguely tired and spiritually sad.