“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” features a cast that reads like a Who’s Who of British Cinema: Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, and Penelope Wilton represent the cream of the older generation of Brits. For the younger crowd, there is Dev Patel, the charming 22-year-old star of “Slumdog Millionaire,” the surprise hit of 2008. And for all, there is the deft direction of John Madden, best known for his Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love.”
This is a comedy about aging people in desperate straits. That unlikely premise actually yields a lot of laughs along with the sentiment. And despite this being emphatically a comedy, anger, divorce, and death figure prominently in the plot.
For various reasons—primarily financial—the older folks all board a plane to India, enticed by the website advertisement of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” in Jaipur. Its manager, Sonny (Patel), is a ball of energy and, well, sunny in his outlook and disposition. He has to be: the place, which he has inherited from his father, is a rundown mess. The phone doesn’t work, some faucets don’t function, and at least one bedroom lacks a door. Sonny’s love life also has troubles. His girlfriend (played by Tena Desae), a marketing call centre worker, doesn’t please either her brother or Sonny’s mother.
Their displeasure mirrors the initial shock of the guests, who had expected something far more beautiful and exotic for their precious pounds sterling. As we discover their various reasons for coming to the hotel and watch their extremely differing responses to the streets and culture of India, the screenplay asks us to sympathize with their plight—even when we don’t especially like them. Some of them love the place and people; some detest it; at least one returns to find a lost love; one returns to England, realizing that a longtime love has died.
Of the talented troupe, Dench stands out, demonstrating again why she has won the multiple honors she has. Having played everything from Queen Elizabeth I to Bond’s boss, “M,” Dame Judith captures our attention slyly, and her character deservedly gets the most screen time. She establishes the film’s theme about the necessity of changing and adapting, especially as we age and are forced into new, not so comfortable circumstances. Other characters, such as Nighy’s, mirror hers, while still others, notably Wilton’s and Smith’s, serve as foils.
Having lived for a time in India, I was charmed to be taken back visually without being subjected to a travelogue. We experience both the beauty and the squalor as the characters do, rather than as a picturesque, but distanced, setting. Ol Parker’s screenplay has both bite and tenderness, intriguing us about how these ordinary people respond to this extraordinary place. If the ending is a bit too pat, it still satisfies.
Rated “PG13” for “sexual content and language,” the movie neither shocks nor titillates. Your average teen is likely not to catch much of its humor, a lot of which deals with the not-so-funny problems of getting old. Anyone looking for a theater showing “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” may have to scrounge a bit, as it has only been brought into wide release relatively recently. (Clearly, its producers didn’t plan for its becoming a sleeper hit, wedged in among the summer blockbusters.) It’s well worth the search or, failing that, snatching up the DVD when it arrives sometime this fall.