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Movie Review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

May 11, 2012

From the blowsy, cutesy, painfully unfunny trailer for this film, I went into the screening with eyes half averted, dreading the sight of some of my favorite British film actors pandering to the elderly art film audience in a mawkishly feel-good contrivance. And while there’s mawkishness, to be sure, as well as feel-good contrivance, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, like the establishment after which is is titled, is nowhere near as bad as it first appears. In fact, despite itself, the film is nearly as charming as it’s meant to be.

The story begins with a motley assortment of British senior citizens, at various ends and crises in their lives, who fall for the promises in bright, glossy brochures and advertisements for an affordable yet beautifully restored luxury retirement  hotel in India. They meet for the first time at the airport and embark on their epic journey. Of course, the cultural landing is bumpy.

India is overwhelmingly noisy, dirty, chaotic, hot, dusty and crowded. And their initiation is tough. With their connecting flight canceled, they must undergo a long bus ride on an ancient, dilapidated bus filled with locals, and then an even more hair-raising final stretch by means of tuk-tuks (motorized rickshas). By the time the exhausted and filthy group arrive at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, they are more than ready to fall into the arms of the promised sybaritic amenities.

To their shock, however, the place is little more than a filthy ruin. The plumbing and phones are broken, furniture is piled and covered with dust cloths, and there is no staff. Sonny, the young, deludedly optimistic innkeeper, is as surprised to see them as they are to see the shambles. He had advertised the dream—the glorious state to which he plans to restore the formerly grand hotel, despite his complete lack of funds to do so— rather than the reality, and certainly never expected a bunch of cranky old Britishers to descend on him so soon.

Thankfully, though the movie, like its eponym, promises more than it delivers, it also rises above its hokey premise and carefully constructed plot points to surprise the viewer with unexpected pleasures. Yes, just as, in the end, the rightly indignant senior citizens come round to the pleasures of India. But first, we must undergo the obligatory paint-by-numbers conflicts, flirtations, secret sordid pasts, history revisited, false identities deflated, a marriage dissolved, a harridan revealed to be a softie, and—this being a bunch of old folks, after all—a sudden death. And over all this is the troubling specter of its questionable genre, that hoary favorite: white folks descending upon the colorful, childlike natives and learning some lessons about joie-de-vivre and themselves.

Thank goodness this circus is all in the able hands of its stellar cast, a veritable Who’s Who of British actors over 60, in particular the flawless Judi Dench, Billy Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith. If, by chance, the fictional plane on which all these principals jet to Jaipur had crashed into the Indian Ocean, British drama would have been sunk indeed. Instead, these veterans effortlessly infuse loads of wit, intelligence and toughness into what would otherwise have been a hopelessly mushy screenplay.

An unfortunate uptight, nagging wife role played by Penelope Wilton never ceases to annoy, and Ron Pickup plays a playboy type who seems to have been included mostly in a bid for laughs (he got them from the elderly crowd I saw it with). Perhaps appropriately, however, the only poor performance  is that of the film’s one youngster, the mechanically cheery Sonny, played by Slumdog Millionaire‘s Dev Patel. True to the genre (see above) this one “native role” is thinly written and never assumes personhood, and to compensate, Patel becomes increasingly manic.

Despite its flaws and what feels a rote tracking down of each main character’s storyline, this film does come into its own, mainly in the virtuoso quartet of Dench, Nighy, Wilkinson and Smith. And The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has this right: in these troubled economic and geopolitical times, the idea of an affordable, dignified retirement amongst strangers-turned-friends on the other side of the world is a dream we can all sign on to.



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