If for nothing else, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” deserves praise for courting an underserved box-office demographic (so-called “senior citizens”) and for assembling an energetic, wily A-team of English actors to demonstrate that dramatic chops definitely do not diminish with age.
While this canny if schematic adaptation of Deborah Moggach's genial geriatric novel “These Foolish Things” might have limited appeal to younger audiences, it nonetheless offers an object lesson in the potent allure of great acting and in the powers of openness, curiosity and tolerance to stave off the ravages of old age.
Ably directed by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) from a serviceable script by Ol Parker (“Imagine Me and You”), “Marigold Hotel” is freighted with obvious life lessons and given to sappy situations. But with a cast led by Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy, as well as exuberant young Indian star Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”), it manages to trip lightly past its pitfalls and deliver an honest jolt of world-weary optimism.
The by-the-book setup is this: Seven cash-strapped British retirees respond to a glossy brochure from the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (for the Elderly and Beautiful) in bustling Jaipur, India, where they're promised cozy accommodations in their golden years for a cut-rate price. In other words, they're invited to outsource their retirements.
In rote fashion, we're introduced to the seven pensioners: recently widowed Evelyn (Dench, 77), whose late husband frittered away their savings; timid Douglas (Nighy, 63) and his shrewish wife, Jean (Penelope Wilton, 65), who invested their savings in their daughter's failed Internet startup; faded playboy Norman (Ronald Pickup, 71), who still passes himself off as 40-ish on dating sites; oft-married lonely heart Madge (Celia Imrie, 59), desperate to avoid being a stay-at-home grandma; and recently laid-off housekeeper Muriel (Smith, 77), a tart-tongued xenophobe who travels to India mainly for a cheapo hip replacement operation.
And rounding out the septet is the melancholy Graham (Wilkinson, 64), a High Court judge who spent his privileged youth in India and is returning to deal with some surprising unfinished business from his past.
Naturally, when the elders arrive they discover that all is not as advertised. The opulent Marigold Hotel (photo-shopped in the brochure) is a ramshackle hovel. There's the harried, good-natured young proprietor, Sonny (Patel), scurrying around trying to keep the establishment running; there are no doors on some rooms; and birds are flitting in and out of broken windowpanes.
Not surprisingly, each character is ascribed with certain life issues that are duly dealt with — some with believable complexity, some with simplistic shorthand.
While Madden's cameras venture out into the roiling, neon-bright streets of Jaipur and the surrounding countryside just enough to give us a travelogue flavor of India in all its chaotic glory, the character studies take up most of the film's attention. Stellar performances are delivered by all, but especially notable are Wilkinson's sweetly sorrowful quest; Dench's gently determined turn; Smith's haughty racism that softens into sympathy, and the largely unknown Pickup's randy turn as the over-the-hill Lothario.
Little pillow mints of wisdom abound in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” but perhaps the best is delivered by the chipper proprietor Sonny, who tells his nervous guests, “In India, we have a saying — everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not yet the end.”
— Dennis King
“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”
Starring: Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton. (Sexual content and language)
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