To quote a song that you are entirely unlikely to have heard (and which I unashamedly enjoyed in my teenage years), ‘we just want to feel good’.
But ‘feeling good’ isn’t a cut and dried concept. It’s certainly not a term with the coolest of connotations…though, as I write this, I’m hard-pressed to explain why. From where does this bias originate? Is it my cold pragmatism, standing roughly on the face of my hedonistic past, telling me to put down my 7-string baritone guitar and get a job? Is it my inner David Mitchell, sternly reminding me what life is all about—chores now, for jam tomorrow? Or is it the odd aversion I occasionally have to hippies—or more accurately, certain aspects of hippie culture? (Don’t worry hippies, I’ll be unpacking this particular bias before the end of this review.)
In cinema, certainly, ‘feel good’ isn’t a term I flock to. Calling something ‘the feel-good hit of the year’ makes me yearn for a 180 degree turn towards an evening spent watching Seven Pounds and crying myself comatose. Feeling good is for wastrels and the disillusioned. A Pyrrhic victory is more likely to entice me, because—on balance—a Pyrrhic victory is more likely. Widen any lens far enough and you’ll see the true cost of any event.
It would appear to an outside eye that my thematic intention this month is to unashamedly bring everybody down. But don’t fret! Or at least, don’t fret on my account. (Seriously, please don’t. Got enough on my plate as is! Trust me, this 12 hour slow-cooked pulled pork isn’t going to shred itself.) No, the reason the concept of a ‘feel good’ movie has come up is because, quite predictably, I watched a movie that fell into that category. And gosh darn it, I’ll be buggered if it didn’t work a treat. I felt good, and I would invite you to feel the same.
The box-office heavyweight this month, demurely gesturing to a friend with one hand while elegantly completing a complex dance move with the other, is The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015). Written by Ol Parker and directed by John Madden, this movie is a sequel, but when has that ever stopped me? Set in India, it follows the travails of a delightful ensemble cast, finding new avenues of life in their twilight years. The core premise is that young Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), the co-owner of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—the retirement hotel where the core cast resides—is looking to expand. To achieve this, he needs to become part of a franchise, and to get approval from the franchise he’s head-hunted, he needs to survive a visit from a mystery inspector.
This all sounds incredibly riveting, I know. But what makes this bureaucratic box-ticking exercise work is its intriguing characters, and the comedy of errors they get contrivedly drawn into. Sonny in particular can be hard to watch, if you’ve got a squeamish stomach in regards to bumbling. His constant awkwardness provides the greatest barrier to his success, both professionally and with his fiancée Sunaina (Tina Desai). He’s not alone; plenty of men and women in this film are held back by their emotional deficiencies, until their inevitably heartening denouement. And I’m not kidding when I say the plot threads are contrived—how often is it that someone gets into a situation where they think that they’ve accidentally put a hit out on their own wife? Granted, this only happens because of the language barrier between Norman (Ronald Pickup) and a cab driver, but still.
Oh wait, did I not mention? The majority of the cast is white. It’s a predominantly white cast, in a film set in India. Oh, and did I not mention that the film is British? I didn’t? Well, it is. To my mind, this explains two things: why this comedy of errors is ripe with charm (where an American film with a similar plot would be 110% fart jokes), and why the characters are mostly all erudite, dignified, and of course, as white as Judi Dench.
Did I not mention that this film contains Judi Dench?
Okay, okay—I’m making this sound worse than it is. At least…I think I am. It’s possibly as bad as all that, and worse. Being pretty damned white myself, I’m not what you’d consider an authority. But whenever I see something like this, I poke and I prod, because I don’t want to blindly accept that a movie set in a foreign country is only optimally configured when it has a high-white content. Not that there aren’t several Indian characters, each integral to the plot! Sonny’s upcoming wedding to Sunaina, his rivalry with Kushal (Shazad Latif), and the rocky relationship his mother (Lillete Dubey) forms with potential inspector Guy Chambers (Richard Gere)…these are all crucial pieces to the puzzle. But the gaggle of octogenarian ex-pats inhabiting the limelight seem pretty damned privileged, and in a country like India, which was once under British rule, this makes me…well. Uncomfortable.
Anyway. The opponent this month, which I hinted towards so masterfully in the second paragraph, is Inherent Vice (2014), written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. A hippie-fest of Hendrixian proportions, this adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name is about Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who is—and I’m being quite serious here—a hippie who solves crimes.
That’s right. You heard me.
It’s fucking delicious. This movie is literally Hunter S. Thompson by way of Dashiell Hammett. It’s postmodern genre fiction, a mash-up of recognisable tropes mulled up and rolled into the fattest drug-cigarette you’ve never smoked. On the one hand, you’ve got incessant intrigue; like all the best detective fiction, there are plot-threads aplenty, and while they initially all seem disparate, they all inextricably lead to the mystery’s conclusion. Crooked cops, dangerous dames, the obligatory third-act beating for the protagonist—everything you’d expect from a gritty urban crime paperback. But then on the other hand, the entire experience is seen through the multicoloured, decadent bong-haze of the free-love 70s. Doc is a hippie, vague yet compassionate, and while this does offset his capabilities, it also affords him opportunities that a straight-laced private eye would be without. Plus, he’s the focus of a narrative! Of course everything is tailor-made for what he can and can’t do. And a complex mystery is about as contrived as a narrative can get.
The driving force behind Doc appears to be the femme fatale of the piece, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), a mysterious ex-girlfriend who brings him the nugget at the centre of the case. But the true heart of Doc is his conscience, and this—along with his opinions, and feelings, and memories—is magniloquently expressed by his friend Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), who is effectively recounting the story to the audience. Now it’s been said before that narration is a lazy storytelling tool in a screenplay, but I personally don’t buy it. Like Adaptation or Fight Club, Inherent Vice is a film that demonstrates the intellectual depths that can be plumbed by artfully expressing the inner thoughts of the protagonist. Sure, it is lazy if it’s done poorly. But so is putting things on toast, or cunnilingus.
So! Let’s cut to the chase. Did either of these movies make me, ahem, ‘feel good’?
Well, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (JESUS that is a long title) definitely did. It is, by design, a heart-warming experience. I’ll comfortably say that it borders on the saccharine, but for me it never actually crossed that border, because the cast constantly rip on each other, albeit politely. Many of the jokes are age-related, but it’s far from being ageist; they’re just making light of a shared situation. In fact, many of the lessons learned are to do with a willingness to get the most out of life, even in its last chapters. It’s all very British to me, and quite frankly, that’s another reason I loved it. What can I say, I was raised on the BBC by way of the ABC. And the cast is absolutely stellar—Maggie Smith, Celia Imrie, Diana Hardcastle, Tamsin Grieg, Penelope Wilton, just to name a few—but of all those, Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy) was my undisputed favourite character. (Surprised? Yeah, I thought not.) But yes! Credits rolled, good feelings were had…I even got a little misty, I’ll admit it. I apparently have heartstrings, and they apparently got well and truly plucked.
However, Inherent Vice is more of a ‘feel weird’ film. Once again, very intentionally; like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this is the kind of movie you chuck on when you want to feel like you’ve done drugs, but don’t want that pesky comedown when you’re slinking to work the following day. There’s even a pleasing dose of Benicio Del Toro, in the form of a lawyer-slash-seaman named Sauncho Smilax, Esq. It’s incredibly surreal, and I never would have picked it, but this proves quite the fruitful bedfellow for the hardboiled traditions of Hammett and Chandler. The cases handled by P.I. luminaries such as Sam Spade or the Continental Op were often confusing and messy affairs. Audience disorientation is actually crucial, evoking the sensation that both the protagonist (and the writer, for that matter) know much more about what’s going on that you do. Of course, being perpetually stoned, Doc is more bumbling than Machiavellian, succeeding accidentally more than once, but this is a plot seeking intrigue and laughs in equal amounts. And he’s definitely clever, and more than a little persistent.
So how did I feel, walking out of Inherent Vice? I was pleased, certainly. Being an academic, an academic concerned specifically with genre fiction of this kind, I was tickled several vibrant shades of pink. But was it a satisfying ending? Was I, in fact, happy with how tightly everything was rolled?
Well, no. Of course not. I liked the ending, but—as stated above—Pyrrhic victories make me bar up like nobody’s business. The core of the film was emotionally rewarding, but the damage was certainly done. The resolution of Doc’s relationship with his frenemy Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) is notably strange, but I feel like I understood Anderson’s and/or Pynchon’s intentions there. And in a film this esoteric, it’s the best you can hope for; frankly, anything more pat or explicit would feel like a betrayal of form. The plot was a slow-burn, but on balance, I liked the immersion. When you fork out for a trip, you want your money’s worth.
So I guess the lesson here is that as much as I have dismissed the concept of ‘feel good’, it’s something that proveably gets to me when it’s done well. It’s the same impulse that has inspired repeated re-watchings of Pixar’s back catalogue, but at the same time has me steering clear of the majority of light-hearted comedies. I admit it! I want to ‘feel good’, hippies. I like feeling good, and I like love, and peace, and equality. I actually care about those things. But films are escapism for me, and ‘feel good’ has a shelf life. Even ensconced in the most elegant art form, I can only deal with happy endings for so long before I find my nose wrinkling and my brow furrowing. Life simply isn’t that clean cut.
Then again, I don’t want unhappy endings non-stop either. And to this end, I can have fun with hippies—I can share an evening and a drink, waxing lyrical about the world. But there will inevitably come a point where they say something I don’t like, or I simply grow weary of them, and then I’m gone. But, to be brutally honest, this is how I find the formula of most social interactions is expressed…you’ve been lovely, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your company, but if you’ll excuse me it is of vital importance that I get away from you as quickly and as cleanly as possible.