If the notion of retirement-age Brits heading off to sunny India to decamp at a professed luxury retreat “for the elderly and beautiful” sounds a little worrisome, you may want to beware. Fraught with forays into only the most surface-level of India’s many complex wonders and ambiguities, John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is on slightly-above-average TV sitcom territory while often cloyingly presenting itself as a more top-shelf variety of the witty British Comedy.
Self-congratulatory gags abound. Ginned up conflicts are kept simple. Madden pretends to bask in India’s rejuvenating powers while at best he basks in his good fortune to have the likes of Bill Nighy, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson to carry him and a screenplay adapted from Deborah Maggoch’s novel. Which isn’t to say we’re dealing with total vacuity here. When actors this good are around, redemption looms right around the corner.
Nighy especially rings true and soars as a henpecked yet resilient good soul who manages to both keep his scenes’ comedy honest and also elevate the proceedings above the merely chirpy. His rough-and-tumble wife (Penelope Wilton), who treats him with utter scorn, refuses to leave the hotel. Even worse, racist and xenophobic Maggie Smith, wheelchair-bound and waiting for a cheaper-in-India hip transplant, won’t eat anything she “can’t pronounce.” Judi Dench’s character, who never held a job in her life while her recently deceased husband was still alive, takes a job in an Indian call center. Soon she’s called upon to give the staff instructions on how to humanize their phone encounters. No, thankfully, she doesn’t try to subsequently convert everyone to Christianity and a British diet. She does, however, work with a gorgeous young woman (Tena Desae) who happens to be the forbidden girlfriend of the young hotel owner who hosts the group. Dev Patel, fresh off his starring performance in Slumdog Millionaire, evokes hyper, overwrought enthusiasm for his broken down hotel where phones don’t work and some rooms don’t have doors. His mom is always around as she wants him to sell the hotel and follow her wish of an arranged marriage. His cranked up manner comes to a complete halt once she utters a word.
Meanwhile the hokiness can’t help but offset the film’s occasional poignancies. When Wilkinson reunites with a former lover he hasn’t seen in 30 years we can’t help but be moved. When Nighy finally tells off his wife we’re again caught up in marvelous, affect-free acting. Trouble is these too few scenes usually give way to strolls right back into banality. A pair of older singles on the trip (Celia Indie, and the appropriately named Ronald Pickup) seek the nearest available hook-ups, although Imrie’s stereotypically differs from Pickup’s in that her interest is primarily golddigging as opposed to Pickup’s largely physical interest. As is many films with this many characters, there always seems to be an excuse for cutting away to a different character as soon as things get a little interesting. Also, be prepared for a major character switching from intolerant and vile to rigorous and compassionate so suddenly it’s as if it were caused by a bolt of lightning rather than any plot or character development.
5.5 Good Actors Can’t Save A Gauzy, Discursive Script (Out of 10)