In some ways, John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel may seem less a movie than a license to get those of us with AARP cards into the cinema—and really there’s nothing wrong with that, especially when you consider that it’s not a demographic that’s all that well served. And since I’m part of that demographic (albeit a part that gets to the cinema rather a lot), I can be fairly accused of responding positively to a film that’s as tailored to me just as much as a Transformers movie is aimed at a much younger audience. But, let’s be honest, this sort of thing can be just God-awful—The Bucket List (2008) immediately occurs to me. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, on the other hand, strikes me as just right. Yes, it’s almost exactly what I expected (with a few very nice twists), and you know what? That’s just fine.
It’s also the kind of ensemble movie that What to Expect When You’re Expecting could never even dream of being—and for more reasons than the fact that Cameron Diaz is no Judi Dench. The truth is, of course, that part of what makes The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel work is the cast. You put Dench in a cast that also includes Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson—along with slightly lesser known members of British Actors’ Equity like Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup—and you’re part-way there, but you still need a screenplay and solid direction. In this case, you get both. Ol Parker’s screenplay—from the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach—has the feel of middleweight literature. It’s the kind of story that English novelist J.B. Priestley might have written back when people wrote—and read—books like this. Unlike a What to Expect, the story has a strategy for bringing its diverse characters together—cleverly sketching in the setup in the first few minutes—and then letting them interact. But don’t sell John Madden’s direction short either. It takes a deft touch to keep all this moving—not to mention place it in an exotic locale without feeling like a travelogue. (That defeated Ryan Murphy with Eat, Pray, Love.)
The whole idea is to place this group of aging characters—for various reasons—in the rather too hopefully named hotel of the title in Jaipur, India. Most of them are there for financial reasons—the very thing that Sonny Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire‘s Dev Patel) has counted on with the hotel. (His reasoning is that it’s a logical extension that other countries should outsource their retirees.) This is why none-too-happily-married couple Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton), recently widowed Evelyn Greenslade (Dench), husband-hunting Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie), and aging lothario Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) are there. Unpleasant and virulently racist Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) has other reasons—a cheap hip replacement without a six-month waiting period—but they, too, are financial. Only retiring judge Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is there for reasons that have nothing to do with money.
Of course, the hotel is far from what’s presented in the brochures (which Sonny insists depict the future) and nothing goes exactly to plan, but most of the newcomers not only adapt, they become involved. I would prefer not to go into great detail. Some of the reviews I’ve read strike me as giving away far too much, and while the film has delights that will doubtless repay multiple viewings, this strikes me as a film best approached without too much foreknowledge. Some will find it slight and predictable anyway, but I suspect they’ll be in the minority, owing to the film’s good nature, flashes of genuine insight, occasional surprises, just right nonsurprises, beautifully captured setting—and, of course, that cast. Rated PG-13 for sexual content and language.