The newish term “dramedy” is meant to describe a film that is part-drama/part-comedy. It’s an ugly term, scarcely English in structure, and, if anything, suggests a movie made by a camel. No, no.
For the movie in question here, the correct term is comedy-drama, with one of the best ensemble casts, Brit division, in years. It is led, in every sense of the verbal, by the great Judi Dench (giving one of her best performances), and then followed, in that order by Maggie Smith, the wonderful Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, a scene stealer, the wonderfully named Ronald Pickup (as a Don Juan) and Penelope Wilton–all of them freely admitting to being over 70.
Is it funny? For the properly seasoned audience, yes. Facing the fundamental, unavoidable truths of life, it laughs about (and at) them, wisely and cleverly. (We’ll admit that a few of the jokes here are as old as the cast members, but true nonetheless.) The conflicts here include marriage, divorce, death, infidelity, impotence, closeted homosexuality–many of them buried or disguised for, lo, these many years.
Do not misunderstand: This is not a “problem” drama/comedy. It’s about multifarious life, and it does not reduce its subject to mere problematica. Is The Tempest a problem drama? Is The King’s Speech? The film’s great theme–the consequences of time in relation to age–is played out in every possible way, sometimes for hard laughs, almost never for poignancy. Great actors know better than to play for poignancy; and make no mistake here: there are three or four great actors in this impeccable cast, making for seamless story-telling.
The actors also transform the material. It almost feels unfair to synopsize the plot, since it might come off sounding like a sitcom. But: Seven Brit retirees decide to pull up stakes and move to allegedly low-cost India (Jaipur) to find new adventures–and this is an adventure story above all, real-life division.
Like life, the Marigold Hotel is a bit Photoshopped. In its brochure, the hotel has doors, workable plumbing, English-speaking lackeys, a whirlwind (if inept) owner (Dev Patel) and labyrinthine tours and excursions. Not so in reality.
Yet the retirees themselves are no prizes. One is a bigot and chronic complainer; one is husband-hunting; one is looking for a one-time lover; two are unhappily married, and one recovering from the recent death of her husband, with attendant money problems. There is a generational conflict (old vs. modern India) in the proprietor’s life. And a prospective buyer lurking in the wings wants to tear the hotel down, and end a father and son’s dream. All of which becomes believably tangled and then (more-or-less) untangled. It gets better, if not Photoshopped.
The Exotic Marigold is a triumph in many ways. In the movie world, even the more nearly-civilized Brit film industry, it is often difficult to get insurance for performers after a certain age. It must have been at least a partial nightmare to insure the seven leading actors here. The big names like Dench and Smith may have swung the deal. (That Dench amply deserves her big-name status around the English-speaking world, thanks to her many Brit episodic TV series, is again on display here.)
The film, courtesy of money from the Brits, some Americans, and from Abu Dhabi, opened big this week-end, and might prove to have legs, as they say.