By William E. Paterson

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”
As best I can tell, the producers of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” had the following goals in mind: showcase some of the cream of British acting talent; provide a vivid portrait of India’s vibrant and colorful culture (with the grating poverty and squalor airbrushed out); and create a film in which there are few surprises on the journey to the ultimately predictable happy ending. Ordinarily such shameless predictability would earn my critical scorn and there are a couple of scenes the film could have done without. But overall, I must confess that “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a film whose charms are nearly impossible to resist even if one was churlish enough to want to do so.

The film follows a group of British retirees who have responded to a glossy Internet ad touting a bargain priced luxury retirement community in Rajasthan. What they have failed to appreciate are the Photoshop skills and hyperbole of the enthusiastic young proprietor, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire”). Evelyn (Judi Dench) is a recent widow who has decided that for the first time in her life she will break out of the mold and seek adventure. Graham (Tom Wilkinson) grew up in India and longs to return for reasons that become apparent later in the film. Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) are a not so well-matched couple trying to stretch their retirement budget. Muriel (Maggie Smith) is an unreconstructed Imperialist who would not be caught dead in India except for the fact she can get a quick hip replacement rather than waiting in the endless National Health Service queue. This group of mismatched Brits is rounded out by an aging would be Lothario and a woman who has run through so many husbands she is looking for new territory to explore.

When they all arrive at the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” it becomes painfully apparent that they have not washed up at the “Four Seasons”. How they react to their new change of circumstance is the core of the film. One of them refuses to leave the hotel for fear of the imagined dangers which lurk in the crowded and pulsating streets of the city. Some are initially hesitant to venture forth but are willing to at least dip their toes into the cultural strangeness of their new home. Others revel in the opportunities for a world of new experiences. For many of them, their stay at “The Exotic Marigold Hotel” will be a life changing experience.

It is hard to imagine there will be a film out this year with a more appealing ensemble cast. Tom Wilkinson is incapable of giving a bad performance; Judi Dench is nothing short of charismatic; and Bill Nighy makes the most of the great comic lines gifted him by the screenplay. The rest of the cast also hit all their marks. In this era of youth culture (and here I know I am showing my age), there is a pleasure in seeing a film which focuses on the hopes, dreams and aspirations of those who have long since left youth behind them.

Who would have thought a film based on a murder in a small Texas town would be the best comedy to come along in some time? It owes that honor to a killer script and pitch perfect performances by Jack Black, Shirley McLaine and Matthew McConaughey. All three of them, however, are given a run for their money by the interviews of the real life citizens of Carthage, Texas. Their steady stream of local folk wisdom and wry observations on life in small town Texas is but one of the many delights of “Bernie.” Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) arrives in Carthage as a newly-minted mortuary school graduate who is hired as the assistant director of a funeral home. Whether he is shilling caskets (his sales patter is a wonder to behold), comforting grieving widows or orchestrating the departed’s final send off, Bernie is a marketing master. But, to quote late night TV ads, “Wait, there’s more.” Bernie is also a one man organizational and philanthropic whirlwind. His sonorous voice rings out at church on Sundays; he organizes and acts in little theater presentations; raises money for the new church wing; and works with little leaguers. But, in what is seen as his most selfless act, Bernie befriends Marjorie Nugent (Shirley McLaine), the aging and misanthropic widow of a local oil tycoon. Marjorie is woman whose death would probably prompt the good citizens of Carthage to organize a parade in celebration of her passing.

To the wonder of the townsfolk Bernie has a more charitable view of Marjorie and he is soon her constant companion. He accompanies her on expensive overseas vacations and starts to lead the high life. But there is a worm in the apple. Before long Bernie is subject to Marjorie’s every whim, and she is a woman with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of whims. Tired of being under her thumb as a combination 24/7 gofer and pedicurist, Bernie snaps one day and Marjorie is sent off to meet the grim reaper. Bernie is now knee deep in a cover-up seeking to explain Marjorie’s sudden disappearance. It works for a while, but justice finally catches up with Bernie when he finds himself in the gun sights of Danny Buck (McConaughey), the local prosecutor and media hound. What happens next is not what you would expect from the law abiding folks of Carthage.

“Bernie” is one of those films in which you vainly try to remember at least a fraction of the paralyzingly funny dialogue. This includes a scathingly colorful description of the redneck local jury pool in an adjoining county and observations about Jesus which are meant to put to rest any notion that Bernie is gay. Jack Black tones down his usual comic mayhem persona to give an exceptionally nuanced performance. Shirley McLaine channels the witch in “The Wizard of Oz” and Matthew McConaughey’s showboating D.A. is a comic delight. Along with the leads are dead-on performances from the supporting players. The funeral home owner is wonderfully droll and Bernie’s defense attorney is the epitome of a grizzled
and cynical trial lawyer. But special praise must be given to the addictively entertaining interviews of the locals laced throughout the film. Thanks to all of them, Bernie is a comic oasis.

DVDs to rent
Monsoon Wedding (2002) – This enchanting tale of an arranged wedding in modern day India contains a silent marriage proposal which has stayed in my mind to this day as one of the most singularly romantic scenes I have ever seen on screen. The music is infectious and your only regret at the end the film is that you were not one of the wedding guests.

Cedar Rapids (2011) – Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is a hopelessly naive insurance salesman in small town Iowa. His sheltered existence and Boy Scout mores are going to be put to the test when the company sends him to a convention in that hotbed of sin, Cedar Rapids. By the end of his stay Tim will find himself in any number of adventures for which small town life has left him ill-prepared.

Adaptation (2002) – The very definition of off the wall comedy, “Adaptation” follows the varying fortunes of two identical twins (both played by Nicolas Cage). Charlie is a neurotic closet case with both writer’s block and terminal ineptitude when it comes to trying to meet women. His brother Donald is a lady’s man and effortlessly churns out a hack screenplay which provides him with a gusher of money. With Meryl Streep, Tilda Swinton, Chris Cooper and Brian Cox. A consummate send up of the screen writing trade.

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