Director: John Madden
Rating PG-13. Running Time: 124 minutes
Stars: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith
There comes a time, dear grownup moviegoer, when you must put your money where your demographic is and get yourself down to the multiplex in support of a film made just for you — and not in a pandering way, but in a heart-and-soul, we-know-you, here’s-what-you’re-feeling kind of way.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel gets immediate points for gathering at least four of the 10 best 50-plus actors in the movies (Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith) under one tiled roof.
They play British retirees of differing backgrounds who have all pulled up stakes and moved to colorful, crowded Jaipur, India — expecting to find golden years happiness in what the brochures promised would be a luxurious (but low-cost) grande dame hotel.
What they find, however, is a sadly decrepit shell of a place where the phones don’t work, throngs of noisy people and sputtering vehicles swarm outside, and the food is not exactly what they’re serving at Claridge’s these days. For most of them, this isn’t just leaving their comfort zone — it’s more like entering the Twilight Zone.
Yes, it’s a frankly outrageous setup, and the characters fall into rather predictable roles, but The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel still manages to mine stark truths about what it means to grow older in a world that is (literally, in this case) passing you by.
Wilkinson’s character, a retired judge, seems to be making the easiest transition — he grew up in India, and his return has been spurred largely by a desire to set right some unfinished business from his youth. On the other hand, Maggie Smith’s Muriel sees herself as a short-timer — she’s just staying long enough to get a quick hip replacement (back in England she’d have to wait six months). Nighy and Penelope Wilton play a couple that find India positively disorienting, but their responses to the whirl of strange foods and indecipherable language couldn’t be more different. As a newly widowed housewife, Dench provides the film’s center: Her daily blogs, written to her worried children back home, provide the film’s narrative.
There are other retirees on hand: Ronald Pickup is irascible as a youth-obsessed lothario who sees India as a place to live in denial about his age, and Celia Imrie is fetching as flirty Madge, who has run through all the wealthy men she knows in England and now sees India as a fresh field of opportunities.
Desperately trying to keep this disparate group happy is the Marigold Hotel’s owner, Sonny, portrayed with sometimes unnerving energy by Dev Patel, the heart and soul of the Oscar-winning crowd pleaser Slumdog Millionaire. That Patel wins the audience’s affection is a tribute to his remarkable appeal — after all, he plays a guy who lured a bunch of old people halfway around the world under false pretenses.
One wonders, of course, at precisely what point these people decided that moving to India for the rest of their lives would be a good idea. Too bad they don’t read AARP the Magazine — a recent article suggested places like Belize, Spain and Portugal. But India? Not so much.
Ah, but all that matters not. Director John Madden makes it clear from the start that, when the last loose chunk of plaster has fallen and the residents have finally come to terms with curry, everyone is going to feel pretty good about where they’ve ended up. And we’re happy, too, to have spent time in the company of some engaging folks, in a world that’s dizzyingly — and fascinatingly — different from ours.
You may also like: Bill Newcott's blog post on Marigold.