The cast of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel features so many superstars of British cinema that I felt like I was watching a sort of geriatric version of The Avengers. Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and their costars do, in fact, save the day. Their first-rate performances rescue this film from hopeless sentimentality.
Adapted from Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things and directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), this is the story of seven retirees who leave England to spend their golden years in India. For all but one, the attraction is financial. Each has read the titular hotel’s ads and, believing their promise of luxury accommodations “for the elderly and beautiful,” decided to make it their new home.
In that premise somewhere, I sense, is a pithy comment on the phenomenon of outsourcing, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is. At any rate, the establishment doesn’t quite keep the promises of its marketing campaign. It’s crumbling before the newcomers’ eyes, the phones don’t work, and some rooms lack extravagances such as doors. The owner is a cluelessly enthusiastic young man named Sonny Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel). At one point, he alludes to his vision for outsourcing old age, but I’m still not clear on what that means. Maybe it wasn’t absolutely crucial to shoehorn an outsourcing gag into the movie simply because it’s set in Jaipur.
Some of Sonny’s guests respond better than others to the reality of their new situation, and their reactions offer insights into their sharply contrasting sensibilities. Evelyn Greenslade (Dench) is a recently widowed woman forced to sell her London home to get out of the hole her husband left her in. She’s open to the possibility of a fresh start and, one senses, of a more trustworthy life partner.
Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Nighy and Penelope Wilton) are a breakup waiting to happen. He falls in love with the country, disappearing each morning to explore nearby temples all day. She refuses to venture outside the hotel and considers it a personal victory when she convinces the management to add spice-free meat to the menu.
Jean is a free spirit next to Smith’s Muriel Donnelly, however. The group’s token racist, Muriel has crossed the ocean to avail herself of affordable hip-replacement surgery but is none too happy to place her well-being in the hands of foreigners. Screenwriter Ol Parker has an unfortunate fondness for movie clichés, so Muriel is also a personal metamorphosis waiting to happen, one that even an actor of Smith’s caliber is at a loss to bring off convincingly. When it comes, the reversal is so abrupt that she seems to have received a personality replacement instead.
Tom Wilkinson’s Graham Dashwood is a far more credible and affecting creation. A former High Court judge who grew up in India, he has returned in the hope of reconnecting with the man he loved 40 years earlier. Second-tier characters Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) and Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) have fine moments, too, though they’re in many respects male and female versions of the same person. Both play seniors on the prowl, and between them Parker serves up way more Viagra jokes than one movie needs.
Instances of boilerplate plotting, by-the-numbers character development and bumper-sticker life lessons are more than balanced, believe it or not, by the cast’s brilliant portrayals. They bring these people and their problems to vivid life, and it’s a pleasure to spend a couple of hours in their company. It doesn’t hurt, either, that we spend them in Rajasthan, where the film was shot. Madden communicates his fondness for the place’s sun-dappled bustle and color.
A vastly human, often humorous meditation on final acts, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has its shortcomings but proves a desirable destination despite them.