“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a predictable, sugary-sweet confection that thrives on the liver-spotted backs of its sterling silver-haired actors.
This is the not-so true story … of seven elderly strangers … picked to live in a rundown hotel … kvetch together and have their lives filmed … to find out what happens when Brits stop being polite … and start getting real … “The Real World – Jaipur.”
With all apologies to MTV, that once-great reality show was all I could think about while watching “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a predictable, sugary-sweet confection that thrives on the liver-spotted backs of its sterling silver-haired actors. Some (Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy) are more famous than others (Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton and Ronald Pickup), but all are at their charming best in proving that age is truly just a number.
For this august assemblage, we have director John Madden (at age 63, a golden-ager himself) to thank. And he has picked wisely in selecting thespians perfectly suited to fill the roles of British expatriates who’ve come to India in the hopes of regenerating their élan. Or, as they like to say, “outsourcing their retirements.” And in the process, they manage to achieve the ultimate in wish fulfillment. Romances blossom, regrets are rectified and hips get replaced.
But what holds your attention is the privilege to be in the company of so many delightful characters, be it Dench’s financially destitute widow, Evelyn; Wilkinson’s gay (“in theory”) high-court judge, Graham; Smith’s cranky closet racist, Muriel; Imrie’s love-starved divorcee, Madge; Pickup’s debonair horndog, Norman; or Nighy and Wilton’s constantly bickering married couple, Douglas and Jean. All are strangers, including (as it turns out) Douglas and Jean, but watching them bond as a makeshift dysfunctional family is at once inspiring and groan inducing.
The script by Ol Parker (“Imagine Me & You”), based on Deborah Moggach’s novel “These Foolish Things,” largely plays it safe, keeping the sex off camera along with the deeper issues of marginalizing people on the back nine of life. In their stead, we get a half-dozen storylines encased in adult-sized Depends, ensuring that nothing messy leaks out to spoil the exotic locals in and around Jaipur, home to the once-bustling Marigold Hotel. Absent all amenities, including telephones, electricity and doors in every room, the Marigold, like its seven new guests, is showing its age but still has a lot of life left in her. Or so its young, ambitious proprietor Sonny (“Slumdog Millionaire’s” Dev Petal) believes. It is his dream to find an investor, fix the place up and run it with the assistance of his beautiful girlfriend, Sunaina (newcomer Tena Desae). But his traditionalist mother (Lillete Dupey) has other ideas, including a woman far less sexy than Sunaina for him to marry.
While Patel and Desae are terrific together, their plight, as well as that of the hotel, ruefully distract from the time you’d rather be spending with the seniors, whose lives – as predictable as they are – emerge far more engrossing. But even they are largely reduced to types instead of people, which makes it all the more impressive how well Dench and company manage to flesh out cardboard roles. The standouts are Wilkinson, who projects genuine heartbreak as a man who never forgot his first love, and the unlikely pairing of Nighy and Dench (she, 15 years his senior) as lonely people reviving their zest amid the sights, sounds and allure of India.
The other four, particularly “Downton Abbey” co-stars Smith and Wilton, are also strong, but often get pushed to the wayside to accommodate the other three, who receive a majority of the two-hour screen time along with Patel. Complementing them is the exquisite work by Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Debt”) and director of photography Ben Davis (“Kick-Ass”) in capturing the color, mood and rhythms of modern India, where – for good or bad – Eastern traditions are giving way to Western influences. Both techs are at their best, though, in crafting a scene in which a swan taking flight proves a wrenching metaphor for death.
If only the rest of the movie was as inventive and insightful toward its characters, who rarely do or say anything deep or surprising. About as close as we come to a profundity is Sonny’s sunny motto: “Everything will be all right in the end; and if it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.” Cliché, yes, but I can’t think of a more apt description of a flick whose many flaws seem to flit away one by one until you’re completely won over at, where else, the end.
THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (PG-13 for sexual content and language.) Cast includes Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton and Ronald Pickup. Directed by John Madden. 3 stars out of 4.