What do The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Avengers have in common? Nothing I can think of, except the fact that I saw them both over the weekend. What do they tell us about ourselves? A great deal.
Let’s begin with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a British comedy based on a 2004 novel, These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach. Judi Dench (of James Bond fame) is the lead, along with Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith. The plot takes a group of retirees to India on the promise of elegant living in an exotic location. The hotel is much less than promised, of course, but the locale and cinematography that captures it are stunning. All the sights, sounds, chaos and harmony of Indian culture are on display. The acting is outstanding, the direction effective.
Now we come to the plot, a mixture of story lines that says more about our culture than it does the characters. A warning: if you plan to see the movie or for some other reason don’t want to know what happens next, stop reading here.
Tom Wilkinson plays a retired High Court judge who is gay. He grew up in this Indian village, where he met and fell in love with a man. Wilkinson’s family took him away to England; he now has a heart condition and wants to die back in India. But first he wants to find the man he has loved for 40 years. He eventually finds him and they are reunited. The man’s wife, arranged for him years earlier, knows all about his sexual orientation. The other actors rejoice that Wilkinson’s character and the man he loves are finally together again.
Meanwhile, the young man who operates the hotel and his girlfriend want to get married, but his mother and her brother forbid the union. In one of the comic scenes, the girlfriend disrobes and slips into her boyfriend’s bed, only to discover that a guest is sleeping there instead.
Another elderly man has come from England to look for sexual partners. He and a woman in the Indian village find each other and spend the rest of the movie together. The last plot line involves an unhappy married couple who finally agree to divorce; she moves back to England while he stays in India with Judi Dench, whom he has come to love.
None of this is news in today’s culture, and that’s my point. Every story line, from the homosexual couple’s reunion to the sexual trysts that permeate the movie, is accepted and acceptable behavior. Imagine the same stories 20 years ago—what is our moral trajectory?
The Avengers, by contrast, has all the narrative subtlety of a hockey game. Technology threatens to destroy us, aided by aliens who don’t like humans very much. Of course, technology also saves us in the form of superheroes who risk everything to protect a race that can’t protect itself.
If I were looking for a message amidst all the computer-generated mayhem, I might focus on the perils of progress. But I suspect the movie is more about popcorn and thrills than social commentary.
Taken together, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Avengers prove that Hollywood can make a movie that displays stunning artistry and moral turpitude, and one that provides two hours of escapist fun. Both facts point to the possibilities and problems of our culture today.