They’re movies made with Granny’s taste in mind, the ones that won’t upset the in-laws during a Sunday matinee at the multiplex. This week, I binge on old geezer cinema before purging myself with a misfire from Tim Burton.
Geriatric counterprogramming is a time-honored tradition, rarely more prevalent than during Mother’s Day weekend, and this year is no exception. In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) goes through the shopworn motions of your basic middlebrow ensemble piece. This is the kind of tastefully lensed slot-filler the Weinsteins used to churn out in between awards-season hopefuls during their Miramax days. It’s genteel and toothless to a fault, and yet the darn thing still works, thanks in large part to its overqualified (and predominantly silver-haired) cast and nicely textured production values.
The English dramedy, one of three new releases I’m reviewing this week, hints at a thoughtful exploration of retired Brits’ life journeys, but is held back by tidy, overly programmatic plotlines. It’s an underachieving travelogue that’s nevertheless easy to take. Story wheels start cranking when recently widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench) decides to leave dreary old London behind for that swanky looking resort in Jaipur that she found on that newfangled internet thingy. Other retirees willing to take the plunge are cranky spinster Muriel (Maggie Smith, sans magic wand), former judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson), aging ladies man Norman (Ronald Pickup), husband-hunting Madge (Celia Imrie) and unhappily married couple Jean and Douglas (Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy, who played Simon Pegg’s mom and stepdad in Shaun of the Dead).
The weathered globetrotters arrive at the titular lodge to find they’ve pledged their retirement fund to go live in a crumbling shell of a building. Ah, but this dump has showboating, hyperbole-spewing Sonny Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel) in charge. The overenthusiastic, fast-talking Indian stereotype quickly got on my nerves, especially when it becomes clear this idealistic mama’s boy is far more adept at pitching luxury living than in running a (barely held together) establishment. Thankfully, Madden, who adapts Deborah Moggach’s novel “These Foolish Things” with screenwriter Ol Parker, is far more concerned about the relationship woes of his English transplants. Dench’s character serves as a narrative anchor and, when she starts keeping a journal, the film’s narrator. Evelyn doesn’t miss a story beat: Muriel’s tentative bond with a young, lower-caste maid; Jean and Douglas’ deteriorating marriage; Norman and Madge unlikely alliance to help one another nab a rich spouse.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is always at its best whenever it’s dealing with Wilkinson’s character. A lifelong bachelor who catches the eye of more than one of his travel mates, he’s the only guest who’s lived in India beforehand, and the one with the most intriguing backstory. Finding out the secrets from his past yields the movie’s most touching scenes, and Madden could have taken more advantage of the understated gravity the Oscar nominee brings to this role. Once his character arc is resolved (far too neatly), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel begins its graceful descent into tea-and-crumpets predictability. It’s a feel-good bauble whose intoxicating ambiance doesn’t quite compensate for a chronic tendency to tie up everything in a curry-scented bow.
Even more thorough in its trivialization of thorny subject matter is Miami Film Festival 2012 selection The Perfect Family, a pleasantly low-key but lazily topical portrait of a devoted housewife caught in the middle of this election cycle’s culture wars. God-fearing matriarch Eileen Cleary (ostensible comeback kid Kathleen Turner) has been informed by her priest, Monsignor Murphy (Richard Chamberlain – no altar boy cracks, please), that she’s in the running for her small town church’s Catholic Woman of the Year award. All she has to do is convince a visiting bishop that she and her husband Frank (TV veteran Michael McGrady), a recovering alcoholic, meet the criteria for this honor.
There’s just a couple of snags. Frank, Jr. (a lively Jason Ritter) has dumped his wife and is banging a local manicurist. Then there’s Shannon (Emily Deschanel, sister of Zooey), who is living in sin with Mexican American fiancée Angela (Angelique Cabral). Director Anne Renton zeroes in on the latter storyline and explores Eileen’s crisis of faith as she attempts to reconcile her firmly held beliefs with her daughter’s personal life. It’s a conflict that’s begging for sensitive treatment, but Renton depicts her characters in exceedingly broad strokes. Her direction is flavorless, her indictment of church dogma stale and uninspired. Whenever she attempts to stage slapstick, she falls flat on her face. Worst of all is watching the indomitable Turner trying to imbue some nuance into this loving, if a bit too meddlesome, true believer. Time has not been kind to the former screen siren – she looks like a bloated Hillary Clinton – but there’s still fire in her delivery. She just needs the right vehicle, and The Perfect Family is not that showcase.
Ironically, the oldest character making his way to screens this weekend is not in any of the releases aimed at moviegoers of a certain age. That would be Barnabas Collins, the bloodsucking aristocrat originally portrayed by the late Jonathan Frid in the eerie vampire soap opera Dark Shadows and now brought to eternal life by a greasy-haired Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s slick, tongue-in-cheek reimagining of the cult TV series. The film turns out to be considerably more eerie than its bland ad campaign would have you believe. It is also, following a solid first hour, an overblown mess.
Before it indulges in its fish-out-of-water routine, the new Dark Shadows engulfs viewers in gothic melodrama. A lengthy – and utterly captivating – prologue chronicles Barnabas’ rise to power as the heir to an East Coast fishing empire in 18th Century Maine. Fast forward 196 years. A construction crew circa 1972 accidentally unearth the iron coffin in which Barnabas has been imprisoned by Angelique (Eva Green, channeling former Burton muse Lisa Marie), a budding enchantress who turned Barnabas into a creature of the night after a fling with him went sour.
The film’s first half, in which Barnabas meets his modern-day descendants and attempts to adapt to seventies living, effortlessly glides back and forth between gallows humor and absurdist satire. It plays like an assortment of Burton’s greatest hits, a mishmash of Beetlejuice and Sleepy Hollow with a smidgen of Big Fish thrown in for good measure. And then the movie loses its way. Big time. The pacing goes slack, the tone becomes increasingly erratic, and then Burton opts for an f/x-heavy climax that recalls Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her, and no, this is not a compliment. It drains away the movie’s charm until all that’s left looks like one of Barnabas’ victims: mangled and lifeless.
Dark Shadows (darkshadowsmovie.warnerbros.com) begins mesmerizing weak-willed audiences this Friday in wide release. That same day The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (foxsearchlight.com/thebestexoticmarigoldhotel) starts taking reservations at Regal Cinemas South Beach, whereas The Perfect Family (theperfectfamilymovie.com) prays for tolerance at AMC Aventura and Sunset Place. To all mothers, biological and otherwise, may your loved ones pick a fabulous restaurant for Sunday dinner.