The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is one of those pleasant, inoffensive British movies that offers a passably entertaining two hours without providing material that could be construed as edgy or stimulating. The problem may be that it's a little too pleasant and inoffensive. It's soft in the middle and doesn't earn all the happy endings. Character arcs are warped to satisfy the needs of the plot, not because it makes sense for them to develop as they do. The movie is suffused with instances of droll humor, all of which is familiar and, as a result, not especially funny. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is for those who have an affinity for lighthearted predictable drama featuring some of the best actors working in the U.K.
The movie is essentially one long fish-out-of-water production, although romantic comedy elements can be found seeping through some of the cracks. The unusual thing about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is that the youngest member of the primary seven is 60 years old. It's rare for a movie - any movie - to lean so heavily on such an elderly cast. A little youth is injected via Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel and Tena Desae, but they are supporting players. Still, as one might expect from a group of actors in this age range, the performances are impeccable. Experience does count.
The story transplants seven older citizens of the U.K. to Jaipur with the lure of spending their retirements in splendor and comfort at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly & Beautiful, which is described as a luxury development where all the residents are in their Golden Years - like Florida but with more elephants. Evelyn (Judi Dench), a widow, has never been much of a traveler but, after 40 years of marriage, she decides a change is needed. Graham (Tom Wilkinson) has unfinished business in India, where he lived as a young man. Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Billy Nighy and Penelope Wilson) are forced to find an inexpensive place to live after Douglas loses his savings in a bad stock deal. Norman (Ronald Pickup, who replaced Peter O'Toole when the latter was unavailable) is looking for love, or at least a little sex, to spice up his late life. Madge (Celia Imre, who replaced Julie Christie) is out for something similar, although she's hoping to find someone with a small fortune. Finally, there's Muriel (Maggie Smith), a bitter, intolerant bigot who is in Mumbai for a hip replacement operation - they can do it cheaper and faster there than if she waited for it in England.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is run by Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), a young idealist who has grand views of what the rundown estate can become. His mother (Lillete Dubey) is less enthused about the hotel's future potential earning power and, while the coup of catering to seven guests is a big thing for Sonny, his mother investigates how much can be made by selling the land. Meanwhile, Sonny has relationship problems. His girlfriend, Sunaina (Tena Desae), a call center operator, is not viewed as being a suitable potential wife for Sonny, and this creates friction.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel gives each of the character a storyline to pursue, some of which are more ambitious than others. The most substantive role belongs to Judi Dench; Evelyn's blogs about life in India become the movie's voiceover narration. Because her husband left debts, she has nothing to live on and is forced to get a job. Veteran director John Madden has previously worked with Dench (Shakespeare in Love, Mrs. Brown) and recognizes her versatility. His decision to provide her with the centerpiece part is well founded. She's the center of gravity around which everyone else orbits.
Although Madden's camera captures the chaotic flow of life in Mumbai, the movie gets surprisingly little traction out of its fish-out-of-water premise. This is not an Indian Crocodile Dundee. Evelyn and Douglas spend a lot of time exploring while Jean, uncomfortable in such unfamiliar surroundings and nursing a crush on Graham, hides out in the hotel. For the most part, however, the characters adjust with little difficulty. Graham reveals a secret. Douglas and Jean's marriage begins to come apart. Norman and Madge troll upscale clubs for potential mates. Muriel is transformed from a bitter woman into a caring, open-minded one (a transition that is not remotely believable). And Evelyn plays a part in just about all of these stories while finding a job as a cultural adviser at one of the omnipresent call centers.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is content to tell small stories in a big country. It's not ambitious, opting to rely on good acting and happy endings to justify the viewer's time and money. It should do well in art houses but it targets viewers who often wait for home video to see movies. Fox Searchlight has selected May 4, 2012 as its U.S. opening day, releasing it opposite The Avengers. If there ever was an anti-Avengers movie, this is it. The movies' demographics are mutually exclusive. Those who will see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are looking for something calm, safe, gently humorous, and entirely unchallenging. And that's exactly what they get.
Internet Movie Database
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=66, viewers=78)