We’ve all seen movies about British people who travel abroad to find their true selves. There is no shortage of examples, from the pretty fair Enchanted April 20 years ago to Salmon Fishing in the Yemen this past spring. Many of them feature great British actors, but The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which expands from one screen in Tarrant County to a bunch of theaters this weekend, boasts a gasp-inducing lineup of veteran thespians who range from reliably solid to authentically great. Their efforts don’t raise this travelogue comedy to any level of marked distinction, but they do contribute its complement of watchable moments.
Based loosely on Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things, the story largely takes place at the establishment in the movie’s title, a faded old hotel in the city of Jaipur, India. The building has recently been reopened as an old-age home for British seniors by operator and co-owner Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), an entrepreneur with far more enthusiasm than business acumen. His first seven guests are retired high-court judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson), randy bachelor Norman (Ronald Pickup), husband-hunting Madge (Celia Imrie), newly widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench), bickering married couple Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), and wheelchair-confined hip-replacement patient Muriel (Maggie Smith). Several of these people have chosen India because they’re financially strapped and seeking a cheaper option than the U.K. Almost all of them find themselves enriched by their journey east.
As you might expect, the actors are even more of an attraction than the Indian scenery. For her part, Dench underplays nicely as a woman who’s on her own for the first time in her life. During the scene in which Evelyn goes to work at her first job ever (training call-center telemarketers to talk to elderly British customers), Dench gives the proceedings a pleasing glow, reflecting the character’s pleasure at finding herself useful in the workplace. Similarly easy in his mastery is Wilkinson in two big speeches, one when Graham unburdens himself of a shameful long-held secret to Evelyn, the other after he finally finds peace and sums up his feelings to Norman. Amid all the venerable giants in the cast, the young Patel holds his own admirably, the Slumdog Millionaire star proving himself to be a pretty adept comic bumbler.
Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) establishes a snappy rhythm and makes Ol Parker’s script sound cleverer than it really is. His skills for farce come through in the events that follow when Sonny’s girlfriend Sunaina (Tena Desae) strips off and crawls into his bed only to find Madge sleeping there instead of him. (Imrie’s intrigued, carefully enunciated delivery of the line “A late night booty call!” is the funniest thing here.) Madden makes good use of the scenery, too; the Chand Baori stepwell, with its flights of stairs and landings carved out of the stone walls, forms a spectacular backdrop for a conversation between Sonny and Sunaina.
The director does much less well capturing the setting’s “daily assault on the senses,” as described in Evelyn’s blog about her experiences, the posts of which form a voice-over narration for the movie. His treatment of India isn’t much deeper than a travelogue’s. He also doesn’t properly manage the serious turn that the movie takes when one of the hotel’s residents dies. The plotlines pile up near the end, and they’re resolved neatly and without surprises, with Douglas and Jean failing to reconcile their differences, Sonny standing up to his overbearing mother (Lillete Dubey), and the crotchety, racist Muriel gaining an appreciation for the dark-skinned people around her. All this makes The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel feel like so much bland, overprocessed curry. That, of course, is what much of the audience for this film will be looking for. For the rest of us, this will have to do until we can get the next taste of the real thing.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Starring Judi Dench, Celia Imrie, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Ronald Pickup, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Penelope Wilton. Directed by John Madden. Written by Ol Parker, based on Deborah Moggach’s novel. Rated PG-13.