We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 31 Aug 6:25PM
John Madden (Shakespeare In Love, The Debt) gives seven English pensioners a new lease of life in Jaipur.
“Profound satisfaction. Such is the inevitable result of a prolonged stay at the Marigold Hotel. To create a home for the elderly so wonderful that they will simply refuse to die.” Dev Patel’s entrepreneurial upstart attempts to outsource old age in John Madden’s sweet comedy-drama featuring an all-star cast of ageing British actors. Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith et al - just think of them as the Pensioner Avengers. Arriving in India to find that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel isn’t as glamorous as they were initially promised, the group come to learn that their new home still holds the potential for a transformative experience as they forge new friendships and explore a radically different culture.
"You won't see better for your grey pound." So says an English estate agent as he shows off a poky retirement bungalow to Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) near the beginning of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The salesman's words are part and parcel of his characterisation as an insensitive, unctuous idiot - but nonetheless, it is hard for the movie to shake his phrase once it is out there, however much it may have been ironised. For it is the 'grey pound' that John Madden's feature is pursuing too, as it briskly introduces us to an ensemble of senior citizens, all lured away from the disappointment of their English lives by the promise of exotic retirement on the cheap in a Jaipur hotel - even if its manically optimistic manager Sonny (Dev Patel) has exaggerated its luxurious appointments in his bid "to outsource old age."
Douglas has sunk his civil service pension into his daughter's online start-up company, and is now having to downsize - even if his uptight, shrewish snob of a wife regards everything in India as beneath her station. Recently widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench) also needs to stretch her retirement pound to pay off her late husband's debts. Former high court judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is returning to Jaipur for the first time since his childhood, hoping to put to rest a lifelong sense of guilt and to be reconciled to a lost love. Racist, insular Muriel (Maggie Smith) has come to jump the queue for a hip replacement. Singletons Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Madge (Celia Imrie) are both keen to relive the passions of their youth before they dry up for good.
Watching this film, you can practically hear the pitch: "It's Slumdog Millionaire for the older viewer!" Yet Ol Parker's screenplay (adapted - and sanitised - from Deborah Maggoch's 2004 novel These Foolish Things) works just a little too hard at pushing its particular target audience's feelgood buttons - as though what it is offering has resulted more from a market survey than from the passion to tell a compelling story. There is some posturing towards the (to some) taboo topic of geriatric sex, but it is all presented with a rakish nod and a wink, while the loss of libido that can come with advancing years is a topic raised only to be summarily dismissed lest it bring down the film's fairytale idyll of aging. Death, too, is presented as a decorous, aestheticised affair, coming at the exact moment when life's fulfilment has been attained, and accompanied by quiet repose and birds in poetic flight - as though the end itself were just another package holiday.
All the character arcs (some decidedly thin) come wrapped in the soothing bromides of Evelyn's voice-over narration, tied up in neat, shiny bows, and permeated with a safeness that ensures no viewer need be taken out of their comfort zone or forced to reach for the panic button. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel looks good, and boasts some wonderfully sharp performances - but it is also a picture postcard of a film, capturing the (entirely clichéd) 'noise' and 'colour' of life in India, without ever venturing beyond the touristic or allowing all those crowded buses, tuktuks, motorbikes and elephants to stray from their fixed place in the middle of the road. Films for the 'grey market' are a relative rarity, which earns Madden points just for embracing this form - but it is, surely, possible to see better than this.
In a nutshell: This autumn-years excursion is touristically picturesque and elegantly acted - but with little real sense of adventure.
By Anton Bitel
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