Why You Should Forget “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” And Watch "Grey Gardens" Instead
The classic documentary, which is getting rereleased in theaters, has more interesting things to say about aging than the elderly expat dramedy that proves second time's not the charm.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was The Avengers of aging-British-actor movies, bringing a supergroup of gray-haired talent together instead of comic book heroes. The two features even opened the same weekend in 2012, in what turned out to be a savvy bit of counter-programming. John Madden's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel skipped saving the world in favor of giving its stars a chance at the kind of spotlight and arcs seldom offered to performers in their later years. Its expat retirees got to fall in love and to have sex (without one requiring the other), to consider mortality and their purpose and place in the world, and to realize that life still had plenty of new experiences to offer. It was the kind of surprise hit that was actually utterly unsurprising, given how large the older moviegoing audience is, and how rarely it gets to see itself on screen in any significant showcase.
And, like any successful superhero franchise, there's now a sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which joking-but-for-real promises right in its title more of the same, just not as good — and it certainly delivers. The characters from the first film are almost all back — the dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, and Diana Hardcastle. Dev Patel makes another appearance as the overanimated hotel owner, along with Tina Desai as his fiancée and Lillete Dubey as his widowed mother, leaving newcomers Richard Gere, David Strathairn, and Tamsin Greig to crowd into the already overstuffed film. (Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker have also returned.) Everyone gets a new storyline, most of which curiously peter out into nothing, as if anything so final as an ending would be too much to handle.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which opens in theaters nationwide on Mar. 6, strives for a tone as sweet and innocuous as custard. But, in giving more attention to its tidied-up Indian setting, it also threatens to turn its locals into sources of wish fulfillment and wisdom for its white characters — the journey of Imrie's sexually voracious character, who's trying to choose between two wealthy suitors, is particularly egregious in this. But what's most deflating about the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel sequel is how it dumps the distinctive melancholy that made the first more than just a cutesy movie about charming seniors. There was some irony to its setup, in which the former colonists were forced to find refuge in the thriving country they once occupied, their home no easy place for the older, the infirm, and the short on funds. The characters had found themselves at a point in their lives where they were expected to step aside for the younger and more hungry, to keep quiet, or, failing that, quietly pass away.
All shadows of darkness and harsh surfaces have been dispelled in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Smith's racist Muriel Donnelly has been softened into a mild grouch who cares too much, Ronald Pickup's ladies' man longs for monogamy, and even Wilton's constant complainer has opened up. The movie has a plot thread that foreshadows the passing of one of the characters, only to pull back as if someone ordered a last-minute rewrite. Everything's going up, up, up because death is bad for business, especially when you have the potential for a Third Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on the horizon, and your cast members, as charming and gifted as they are, aren't getting any younger.
There's a much better and much more biting portrayal of aging and being cast aside to be found in Grey Gardens. The Maysles brothers' classic 1975 documentary about Edith "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale has been restored and is being rereleased for the film's 40th anniversary, starting in New York on Mar. 6 and eventually making its way around the country. The Edies, relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, were genuine eccentrics, living in the ramshackle East Hampton mansion of the title, a home filled with cats, infested with fleas, and prone to raccoons in the walls. The house had already been condemned, then cleaned and restored, by the time the film was made.
In the four decades since it first premiered, Grey Gardens has been accused by some of being exploitative, of being a joke at the expense of the two women who, while never diagnosed, may have been mentally ill. But looking back at the film, there's a profound sense of awareness on both sides of the camera. Albert and David Maysles know that the mother and daughter make for unmistakably great footage. But the Edies, one a former singer and the other a former dancer, also have a ferocious hunger to be heard and seen, to have the attention. The Maysles brothers, for example, are often greeted by name by Little Edie upon arrival — multiple scenes find her at or coming through the door, like she's been waiting.
Little Edie talks to the camera flirtatiously and conspiratorially, explaining her famous outfits ("You can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape") and then scolding her 81-year-old mother for the skimpiness of her own garb as she sunbathes. "I'm going to get naked in just a minute, so you better watch out," Big Edie warns. "I haven't got any warts on me." They live lives in splendid shambles, in a 28-room house in a very upscale area that, were it not for the condition in which they'd kept it, would be worth a significant amount of money. But they don't sell, and they don't leave, and they're boldly unapologetic about their existence — consider Little Edie speculating about who might have moved a book from her room as she dumps a pile of Wonder Bread in the attic for the animals up there to eat.
There's something harrowing about Little Edie's constant talk of getting away — it's the kind of sentiment everyone has, only looped, forever, like she's stuck in purgatory. "I hate to spend the winter here, though," she whispers. "Oh god, another winter." When she gets back to New York, she vows, she'll get her figure back, she'll lead her own life, she'll sleep better because it won't be so quiet. "When I go to New York City, I see myself as a woman," she confesses. "But in here I'm just, you know, Mother's little daughter."
And that's what she is, bickering back and forth with her mother in their dilapidated house, looking at old photo albums and listening to records — a 58-year-old little girl, time having somehow slipped through her fingers and left her an older woman. Grey Gardens allows you to understand that Little Edie and Big Edie drifted out of mainstream society due to their inability or unwillingness to act their age and according to their perceived class. Big Edie was cut out of her father's will when she showed up to her son's wedding dressed like an opera star, leaving her unable to support her daughter in her own quest for fame and love in New York.
The movie may romanticize their dysfunctional grandeur, but only as much as they themselves do, looking back forever to the past, rehashing old fights, and battling, again and again, over who's to blame for whose lost opportunities. They're trapped by their own in-between status: impoverished American aristocracy, bohemian women at an age when they're supposed to be behaving like staid matrons. Grey Gardens was, ironically, the thing that made them into celebrities, not as the beautiful young things they were in their photos but as stars of their own proto-reality-show, larger than life, funny, open, and curiously dignified in all their stately wreckage.