The “Silver Linings” of the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

I continue to do my best to watch as many films released in the past year as my schedule will allow. Below you’ll find a review for one film seen (last night) in the theatre, and one seen at home, on DVD.

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012)

My favorite David O. Russell film, and of my favorite films of the past 20 years, is Flirting with Disaster. In it, Russell creates a world of chaotic madcap shenanigans over which he exerts just enough control (but barely) to keep the characters from careening wildly out of the frame. Ben Stiller plays an adult adoptee, and new father, so consumed with finding his birth parents that he is unable to come up with a name for his infant son until he knows who he is. Aided and abetted by his long-suffering and neglected wife (Patricia Arquette) and a comely but inept graduate student (Téa Leoni), Stiller embarks on a cross-country journey in which blood may not be the thickest of connectors. It’s great fun, and a true comedy in which elements of drama occasionally surface to enrich the laughs.

Russell seems to enjoy mess, and even the films of his that I have enjoyed less – like I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings – have nevertheless impressed me with that same sense of chaos-about-to-explode that I liked so much in Flirting with Disaster.  I enjoyed The Fighter to some degree, and appreciated the fine performances that Russell was able to get from his actors – especially Christian Bale – but the narrative arc of the film felt a little flat, perhaps because the central character, played by Mark Wahlberg, was so passive.

One cannot say that the central character of Russell’s new film, Silver Linings Playbook, is passive. Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a bipolar man just released from the hospital after an 8-month stint following a breakdown, brought on after he nearly beat his wife’s lover to death. Among his many behavioral issues is anger management, and when we meet his father, played by Robert De Niro, we see that this runs in the family. All Pat dreams about is getting back together with his wife – even though she has taken out a restraining order against him – and he continues in this obsession even after meeting a very attractive and almost equally unstable young widow, Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Their friendship helps each of them heal, with the predictable result that Pat gets over his wife, falls in love with Tiffany, and learns to control his demons.

I didn’t hate this movie. It has the usual Russell chaos, with much handheld wide-lens camera work to emphasize everyone’s lunacy. For a while, it seems as if the film won’t quite come together, just as Pat can’t get his own act together. But then, with the establishment of Pat’s and Tiffany’s relationship, both the camera and the characters settle. There is a lot of joy in watching Cooper and Lawrence interact, and I loved their final dance and ecstatic reaction to their mediocre score. De Niro rises above his routine later-in-life performances (Analyze This, Meet the Parents) to deliver something more meaningful, and Jacki Weaver is wonderful as the mother.

Somehow, however, the film did not quite gel, for me. Perhaps it’s because the main character is not that appealing, or that I just don’t believe that he could behave the way he does and not get sent back to the mental institution (how many times does he have to break the rules and get warned by his police watcher before that man will act). Or perhaps it’s because Russell didn’t quite manage the comedy and drama well enough to keep me engaged. For whatever reason, although I enjoyed aspects of the film, I was ultimately left a little cold at the end. Since this film has been getting quite ecstatic reviews, that counted as a sizable disappointment. I had been hoping for another Flirting with Disaster, and instead I got an I Heart Huckabees. Interesting, but not great.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden, 2011)

Wow – I have seen two films that use India as an exotic backdrop in the past 4 days (this and Life of Pi). I’ve been spending my morning repeating the title of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in my best approximation of Dev Patel’s accent. He plays the hapless part-owner and manager of the place, and viewers will recognize him from Slumdog Millionaire, in which he played the oldest incarnation of Jamal. I’ve never been able to do a good imitation of an Indian accent, but if these films keep on coming, perhaps I’ll get it. Or I could go back and re-watch Gandhi, A Passage to India, or even The Darjeeling Limited.

I’m being silly, but I’m trying to get at the heart of why I did not want to see this film when it first came out. From the previews, it looked like some weird combination of Cocoon, Enchanted April, Ladies in Lavender and Black Narcissus, with all of the faults of those films and none of their considerable qualities. There was just something so off-putting about the over-the-top head-bobbing way that Dev Patel announced, “Welcome to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” that I was sure the film was going to present India as a crazy third-world country that exists to force uptight older Westerners to confront their materialistic views and realize that a simple life filled with simple pleasures is what they really need. Some will be repelled by the colors, smells and chaos of this strange land, while others will embrace it and become youthfully rejuvenated. Along the way, these uptight Westerners will impose just enough of their own worldview to help a sympathetic young local achieve his own dream.

And The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is all of that. But it is also more. The film is filled with well-drawn characters – British and Indian, alike – and it does a good job explaining why these particular elderly Brits would want/need to make the trip to India.  The actors, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy are all first-rate, and I enjoyed the non-judgmental way the film presented the city of Jaipur, with both its beauty and flaws. Anytime an outside crew films a location, there are bound to be stereotypes that would no doubt offend the locals, but the director, John Madden, seems to successfully straddle the line between romanticization and condescension, emerging with a respectful portrait of the city, instead.

Along the way, we spend time with an appealing cast, and experience real moments of comedy and drama. The conclusion feels a little too convenient – everyone, more or less, gets what he or she want or need – but the film nevertheless delivers on its promise of cinematic redemption. It’s a feel-good movie where not every aspect of the script works, but which overall leaves one . . . feeling good.


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