This historically-based tale of the invention of the sex-toy vibrator speaks well to the current issue of women controlling their own bodies, but it’s a one-trick-pony movie.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
A talented cast, mostly playing characters much older than the standard movie demographic, gives honor to old age, but the several plotlines diffuse the experience.
The common element in our two movies under consideration here are age—in the case of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel the age of most of the protagonists and their coming-of-old-age realizations about themselves and in the case of Hysteria an older historical age, the later 19th century, with its deluded ideas about women’s sexuality that conflated lack of understanding, repression, patriarchy, and medical disorder. Triumphs over social expectations occur in both stories, to the delight of the audiences that I viewed each one with, although neither moves much beyond its obvious primary message. Beginning chronologically with Hysteria, we find ourselves in 1880 with Tanya Wexler’s (good to see a woman directing anything from the studio system but especially a topic such as this) Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) much distressed with the awful situation in London of physicians refusing to acknowledge the latest discoveries of medical science thereby harming more than helping their patients with the continued use of unwashed hands (“Germ theory is poppycock”), rotting bandages, leeches, bloodletting, etc. (an effective visual locates an hospital right next to a coffin shop). Granville's refusal to compromise his professional ethics, along with disgust at the snake-oil remedies being peddled as medicine, soon lead to his virtual blackballed status (reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s over-meticulous, unemployable actor Michael Dorsey in Tootsie [Sydney Pollack, 1982]) until he happens upon Dr. Robert Dalrymple’s (Jonathan Price) practice of treating “hysterical” women with his “nerve-relieving paroxysm” manipulations of their private parts, a procedure given no connection to orgasm nor even pleasure, just relief of an “ailment” impacting half the female population of the city. (I guess the “unafflicted” must have been pre-pubescent girls, nuns, and ancestors of my now-departed older female relatives who seemed to have barely encountered intercourse let alone non-reproductive sexual contact—now if that remark doesn’t finally stir up some responses to these reviews I don’t know what could. Bring it on! [Although I do exaggerate for pseudo-controversial effect. Please forgive me, ancestral ghosts.]) Dr. Granville takes easily to his new-found practice, quickly gaining the admiration of his clients and Dalrymple’s virginal daughter Emily (Felicity Jones), but he soon finds that the eagerness of the women in the waiting room is having a drastic effect on his primary instrument—his right hand—with the ensuing cramps so deleterious to his technique that Dalrymple is forced to dismiss him. (Out of hand, I guess, if you’ll pardon the pun; or maybe you could say he develops carpal tunnel syndrome because of the tunneling required by his “medical” technique … OK, OK, I’ll stop; please continue reading).
Dalrymple has essentially dismissed his other daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), from family affairs as well because of her progressive—essentially socialist—challenges to his staid attitudes so that her suffragette, settlement-house sensibilities constantly run afoul of both her father and his new-then-gone associate, Granville. A reconnection occurs for Granville with both generations of Dalrymples, though, when his rich inventor friend, Edmund St. John-Symthe (Rupert Everett), comes up with an electrically-powered feather duster that Granville realizes can be reconfigured into what we now know as a vibrator (and not the kind to ease aching shoulders, although they continue to be marketed that way outside of the more honest merchandizing in sex shops). Granville and Dalrymple are soon in business again, with more success than ever while Charlotte’s way-station for the poor is on the verge of collapse because of back debts. All comes to a head (so to speak) when she attends a fancy ball given by her father, causes a bit of a commotion which leads to her attempted removal by a policeman, then socks him a good punch when he refuses to unhand her, all of which lands her in jail and on trial for her actions which are being presented as the result of “severe hysteria,” a condition requiring incarceration in a mental institution and forced removal of her “offending” uterus—the real insanity is that such a misdiagnosis is standard medical acceptance at the time but it’s even worse (to me, at least) that such a decision is being made through public courtroom testimony rather than through private examination. At this point Granville comes to her defense (literally), speaking for her strong but sane social convictions (in order to avoid a judicial one; sorry, but the pun override on my keyboard must be activated today) and his “evolved” (maybe Granville is somehow related to Pres. Obama’s maternal heritage) medical decision that the whole “hysteria” concept is the result of hysterical (crazy, not funny) masculine assumptions about male and female sexual pleasure. His testimony results in her release, along with his new round of medical-establishment blackballing, but all hums wonderfully (and electrically) in the end as Granville becomes rich thanks to the marketing of the massager by Edmund and the realization by Mortimer and Charlotte that they are the correct Granville-Dalrymple merger, now with resources to minister to the poor.
This movie is a consistently enjoyable enterprise, with its mix of humor and 21st-century-directed social commentary which pokes fun at the misguided intentions of men to determine what’s appropriate for women regarding command of their own bodies (many of the 1880s’ medical establishmentarians seem to have produced heirs now running the U.S. House and many statehouses as well, with their religiously-based campaigns to deny women the choice of access to birth control or abortion while offering no such objections to erectile-dysfunction drugs for men) and celebrating the basic human desire of women to enjoy the pleasures of those bodies in the same manner that men do with theirs. Over the course of the narrative we go from an opera singer who bursts out in delighted song while trying out the new device (reminiscent of Madeline Kahn’s “Oh, sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found you!” response to her encounter with the well-endowed monster [Peter Boyle] in Mel Brooks’ 1975 Young Frankenstein) to the finale where Queen Victoria is given one of the new machines, then briefly shorts out Buckingham Palace's power while giving it a demonstration. However, despite the amusing and relevant defenses this movie offers for a woman in charge, both in her private and public lives, the whole experience feels to me like a carefully-calculated buildup to that long-desired final release (You expected a comment less crass than that about this movie after the obvious set-up it provides? Go back to the top and start reading again if so.), a slightly more serious version of a Saturday Night Live skit trying to justify itself as a full-length experience (in the context of this review, I’ll consign this last pun to the appropriately-titled “No Comment” page of Ms. Magazine).
The English characters in John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel haven’t gotten much more than what they’ve initially been dealt in the game of life either—where it’s perfectly legal to pine for your true potential without ever finding satisfaction—at least until they all converge on Jaipur, India where they slowly realize what advantages they do have as they see that very few Indians have much at all because of the local sociopolitical realities of a vast, complex, poverty-stricken country where the few locals we meet are struggling to move upward in various difficult situations even as our elderly immigrants are struggling to find something more worthwhile—and affordable—in their final chapters. However, unlike Hysteria, where the narrative arc seems too direct and pointed at a specific, predictable outcome, in the Marigold Hotel there are a plethora of plotlines, a bit too many to juggle to a clean rather than an imposed conclusion. The cast is a commendable collection of well-known, well-awarded thespians who make for a potentially powerful ensemble, although it takes a good bit of attention at first to keep up with who everyone is and what their problems are that send them off to England’s former colony for a finale hopefully more fulfilling than what they anticipate in their home country. Evelyn (Judi Dench) is a new widow who’s never had to take responsibility for herself because of her micro-managing former husband so she decides to push herself into scary new territory, especially because the late Mr. Greenslade also racked up so many debts that she’s had to sell their home; Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is a High Court judge so dismayed by the empty pomp of a colleague’s retirement that he abruptly terminates his own career without fanfare to return to the land of his youth; grouchy and openly racist Muriel (Maggie Smith) simply wants to travel to India for a hip replacement because of the vast savings in operation expenses; Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) have been married far too long to be close any more (she tells him “When I want your opinion I’ll give it to you”) but even though his career has been equally long his pension isn’t enough for them to live in anything but low-income housing because they’ve invested too much of their savings into their daughter’s yet-to-stabilize Internet start-up, yet when they travel Jean resists anything Indian as much as possible, trying to cling to her mental English habitat; Madge (Celia Imrie) was intended by her daughter to be a built-in baby sitter for her grandchildren but she has hopes of finding yet another husband; and Norman (Ronald Pickup—an appropriate name given his character) is also looking for new romance options even though his aging body isn’t giving him much support (in all senses of the word) in those efforts.
As shown in this photo where all of these strangers (well, the English ones at least) meet for the first time as they prepare for their overseas flight, there’s mostly a lot of trepidation as to what they will encounter in a foreign land that most of them have never visited—Graham is the traveler exception because India was once well-known to him, while Norman is the adventurer exception because he’s up for anything (although it takes a little medical enhancement for him to be truly “up” for what he’s really come for). Most of them don’t know what to expect—and here we can include Sonny because he’s not really sure what he’s doing with his somewhat-dysfunctional family property, although he has his own dreams as evidenced by the Photoshopped illustrations of the hotel he envisions on his website that has attracted all of these “Elderly and Beautiful” guests to his accommodations experiment. Certainly the Englishmen (and women) bring their best attempts at being “beautiful” (in sprit if not always so much in body) along with their acknowledged status as elderly, although their age and station in life are not frequent subjects from an industry usually more interested in the disposable income of a much younger demographic than mine (64 and counting). I find that some other film critics (whom I normally wouldn’t reference, but not this time) are more interested in that younger demographic as well, noting that Associated Press’ Christy Lemire says of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “Sure, it’ll seem warm and crowd-pleasing but probably only to crowds of a certain age, who may relate to those characters who find themselves in flux in their twilight” (http://www.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2012/05/02/review_marigold_hotel_offers_safe_escape/?rss_id=Boston.com+--+Movie+news&_r=true). Well, Christy—who’s now on the downhill slide of life herself at age 40 (I’d never paid much attention one way or the other to her reviews until I saw a video attack she did on Men in Black3, which I’ll cite in my upcoming review of that film, and was surprised at how bubbly and snotty she was)—I’ll just say that while I agree with you on this movie not being as impactful as it potentially could be, especially with the acting talent giving their best to each of the diverse roles, I’d like to see how you fare when you reach “twilight,” Toots, because maybe you’ll be “in flux” by then yourself and worried about being “old-fashioned, safe and resistant to stray from [your] comfort zone.” I realize that Lemire is making these latter comments about the film itself, not the characters within, but I hope that in her youthful exuberance that she’s not assuming, as she implies in her first statement above, that only those who are becoming less socially-relevant than her would be able to relate to the journeys that these characters have already taken before embarking on what will likely be the last journey for the older ones in this story.
OK, enough geezer huffing and puffing; let’s get back to some semblance of an actual review of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which I, if Christy Lemire or anyone else cares, liked but, as with Hysteria, don’t feel quite accomplishes everything it sets out to do. This is probably because it’s trying to do so much, especially in exploring the varying strategies through which these English elders find a sense of self-understanding in the competing spiritual and secular environments of India but then butting all of those stories up against the problems that Sonny has with his mother, leading to tense misunderstandings with Sunaina which must be resolved by a last-minute run through the streets to rescued romance, far too reminiscent of the climax of Slumdog Millionaire to not seem like plagiarism. But the youngsters aren’t the only victors in this interwoven tale, as the oldsters get their just desserts too: Muriel finally opens her heart to the outcaste hotel maid whose circumstances are more like hers than she’d realized, then she demonstrates her under-appreciated financial skills to save the Marigold from new-development destruction; Norman takes up with an ex-pat Brit who happily joins him in less luxury than she’d been accustomed to as permanent Marigold residents; unlike Norman's reduced lifestyle, Madge finds a more materially-comfortable relationship with a local Indian man; Graham dies peacefully from privately-known heart problems after reconnecting for one night of friendship with the boy he once loved decades ago, now an old man himself and married to a woman who quietly lets them be for their brief reunion; Doug finally gets up the gumption to confront Jean, who returns to England when their daughter’s business strikes pay dirt leaving him to pursue his new-found fondness for Evelyn; she, in turn, finds a job at the call-center as a culture-coach to help these Indian customer-service workers get a better sense of connection to their overseas clients. While some time does pass from our opening introductions to all of these folks, most of these resolutions come within the first weeks of their Indian encounter, which is a bit facile and conveniently interconnected in a manner that would please the plot-consciousness of Charles Dickens.
And, to finish with a comment on renown septa- and sexagenarians, probably more famous in their own way than even the well-known actors in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I’ll note another cluster of “characters who find themselves […] in their twilight” but who don’t seem to be “in flux” at present, the aged but still ageless Beach Boys, currently celebrating their 50th anniversary in show business with an extensive U.S. (plus Canadian, even some European venues) tour this spring and summer. Nina and I just saw them last Friday night (May 1) at the equally old and respectable (but don’t forget what Noah Cross [John Huston] said in Chinatown [Roman Polanski, 1974]: “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough”) Greek Theatre (built in 1903, financed by William Randolph Hearst) at the University of California, Berkeley campus. Just like the old folks in Marigold Hotel, these guys may be past their prime (and Brian Wilson’s once soaring falsetto voice now needs supplementation from others in the band) but they’re not out to pasture, providing an energetic survey of their long musical career in a show that I encourage everyone, no matter if you’re as young and hip as Christy Lemire or as old and crusty as me, to see if you can, despite the scalped ticket cost. Certain old things, such as the ridiculous “female disease” in Hysteria, need to be swept into the dustbin of history, but others, such as the resilient spirit of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel adventurers and the surfside troubadours of the Wilson-Love family (along with their neighbors and friends), are still alive and vital even as the sunset approaches and the full moon rises. They “Do not go gentle into that good night” (Dylan Thomas, 1951) but instead ride mopeds, drink wine, make love, and have “Fun, fun, fun until [Big D]addy takes the T-Bird away.” Now there’s an ending we should all harmonize with.
If you’d like to diagnose Hysteria further there are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvNF0sEwTts (a 16 min. clip in which some NYC women discuss Hysteria but be aware that you have to get through about 4 min. of opening plugs for the East Village neighborhood in which the discussion takes place)
If you’d like to check in for a longer stay with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6freSuGWfkM (interview with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel director John Madden)
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