An entertaining lark of a film, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel features an all-star cast of some of America’s favorite aging British thespians in a pleasant, if unremarkable, story about people seeking a second life in old age rather than merely a place to shut themselves away to face their inevitable decline.
We’re introduced quickly to the group of retired Brits who each separately decide that being able to stretch the buying power of their pensions in the less expensive living of India sounds like just the ticket.
There’s the widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench), who’s spent her life as a housewife and is eager to experience much more. Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a judge, is suddenly moved at hearing the retirement party speech of a colleague and immediately hangs up his robes and declares he’ll be returning to the Indian city where he was raised. Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) are dismayed to discover they can only afford to retire to a dismal apartment in England, so they seek another option. Norman (Ronald Pickup) is a bit of a dirty old man who decides to go abroad for a fresh start with the ladies, and Madge (Celia Imrie) is something like his female counterpart, who fears that if she stays at home she’ll be stuck with nothing in her life except grandmother duty.
Maggie Smith, who (as with her role on TV’s Downton Abbey) gets most of the best lines, plays Muriel, a bigoted old woman who only travels to India when she’s told that the hip surgery she needs will have to wait six months in England. “At my age, I can’t plan that far ahead. I don’t even buy green bananas,” she tells her doctor.
The place to which they’ve all booked passage is the hotel of the movie’s title, which bills itself as “for the elderly and beautiful.” When the group arrives, they find a decrepit old building that doesn’t live up to the heavily photoshopped images in the brochure. Some of them take it in stride, as just part of the adventure, while others have difficulty making the adjustment to the strange bustling city of Jaipur. Running the hotel is Sonny (Dev Patel), a callow but enthusiastic young man who’s carrying on the dream of his deceased father to restore the Marigold to its glory days.
We learn more about why each of them has come to India. Graham’s back-story is heartbreaking. Douglas and Jean find they can no longer ignore the different people they’ve become, and Muriel makes an unexpected (and at first unwelcome) connection with some of the locals. All the while, Sonny frantically tries to keep his guests happy and his mother from selling the Marigold to developers who would tear it down. It’s all watchable enough, though predictably paint-by-numbers.
I was most disappointed by how little interaction the retirees have with the local culture. The storylines could have been set in any non-Western land. Aside from comic references to the excretory effects of the cuisine, there’s little about India itself, and no basis for why some of the characters come to fall in love with the place.
When Douglas returns to the hotel one day raving about a beautiful temple he visited, I wondered why we hadn’t been invited along for the trip.