Best Exotic Marigold Hotel both Delights and Offends

Directed by John Madden
PG-13, 129 mins. (Participant Media/Fox Searchlight)

* * *

Seven elderly Brits find themselves facing their twilight years under less-than-ideal circumstances. Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) has just lost her husband; Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is a cynical judge facing forced retirement; Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) is a racist battleaxe who needs a hip replacement she can’t afford; Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) is a randy old satyr whose act has grown stale in England; Marge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) has grown weary of being the live-in babysitter for her grandchildren and would like to find herself a sugar daddy; and Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) lost their golden nest egg by investing it in their daughter’s Internet startup company. Seven old people–each in need of a major life change before shuffling off this mortal coil. And each in possession of a slick brochure promising a new way to spend one’s declining years in pampered luxury. All one has to get to Jangipur, India, where one can be cared for amidst the splendor of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful.

From this setup we already know three things: that nobody will be quite what they seem, that things will not go as planned, and that some of the characters will be underdeveloped. Regarding the last point, if we toss in hotel owner Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire), his girlfriend Sunaina (Tena Desae), and his domineering mother (Lilete Dubey), that makes ten majors for a film that’s just a shade over two hours. It’s inevitable that several of them will be painted with very broad strokes. It also means that much of what we encounter in the film will be formulaic and predictable. Start with films such as Shirley Valentine, Enchanted April, A Passage to India, The Piano, Heat and Dust, and The Jewell in the Crown and one could assemble a yearlong film festival on the theme of cold-hearted English people who thaw when exposed to warm climes. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel falls firmly into that genre.

Of the principles, only those played by Wilkinson, Dench, Nighy, and Wilton have a lot to do, though Maggie Smith (predictably) gets to “surprise” us toward the end by–you guessed it–being transformed by India. Wilkinson, who is always a marvel, plays his part to hangdog perfection. He’s mystery man Dashwood, the only person who had actually been to India before. When he was a feckless youth he lived in Jangipur and fell into forbidden love with a local man. Although his traveling companions think him the height of respectability and wisdom–and two of the women would like to have a go at him–he’s actually there to track down his Indian lover whose life he presumes he ruined. But it is Greenslade who really settles in. The film’s narrative is often advanced through her blog, though how she goes from not knowing how to use a computer to being an advanced blogger is one of many things left unexplained. Some of the best drama lies in the dynamics of the Ainslies. Wilton–last viewed by most as Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey–is positively insufferable as the Brit who hates India, Indians, the food, the weather, and pretty much everything else. Nighy is her cool contrast–outwardly ineffectual, silently enthusiastic, and inexorably moving away from his wife and toward Evelyn. The rest of the characters are there for window dressing and comic relief, some of the latter on the cheap side (aches and pains, Viagra jokes, old girl on-the-make, etc.).

As noted, a whole lot of this film plays out exactly as one would have predicted. We give away nothing by telling you that the gap between the brochure and the actual hotel is vast. The banter between characters is frequently witty and sharp, though it is due more to having assembled some of the best actors on the planet than to Ol Parker’s screenplay. In fact, in the hands of lesser actors, this film might have been an embarrassment. It trades in tons of stereotypes about the elderly. Even worse are those involving Indians. (Did the Brits not hear the complaints about Slumdog Millionaire, or do they just not care?) Let’s see: a fast-talking but dishonest hotelkeeper, rooms full of telephone solicitors, cute beggars, five-alarm food, poor-but-happy slum dwellers, rampant corruption….

For all of the criticism, though, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is an enjoyable way to spend a few hours. Above all it’s a testament to how great actors can make a slag heap look like a pile of diamonds. And here’s the other thing. We saw a 2 pm matinee in a large theater that was two-thirds full. All subsequent shows were sold out and it’s been packing them in for almost two weeks now. Most of the people in line were over 50. Think there’s an age demographic that’s been underserved and is hungry to see films that aren’t filled with guns, f/x, and pretty-but-vacuous actors? Yep!  

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