Comfort food for the older crowd at the box office, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is easy to swallow, but it’s also overstuffed and maudlin—an impassioned British comedy-drama starring an admittedly impressive assembly of world-class actors and featuring some scenic Indian locales that never quite coalesces. The movie is about a troupe of down-on-their-luck British strangers who start to feel the emotional as well as financial sting of entering their golden years, and decide to move to an alluring Indian hotspot outside Jaipur. But what looked in the brochure like an oasis of affordable luxury and relaxation turns out to be a shaky pile of bricks run by an optimistic but inept young Indian named Sonny, played by Del Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) with a permanent idiot’s grin and a surplus of enthusiastic energy.
As the hotel’s first and only lodgers, the group includes the newly widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench), an amateur blogger who specializes in facile epiphanies; the exhausted ex-judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson); horn dog Norman (Ronald Pickup); gold-digger Madge (Celia Imrie); married couple Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), who from the outset are obviously mismatched; and, lastly, Muriel (Maggie Smith), who steals the show as a crotchety racist that only came along to take advantage of the country’s cheap and expedient medical care. The hotel’s motto is “outsource the elderly”—a clever play on the epidemic of corporate outsourcing to Asia, but the epigram also epitomizes something much sadder: the cruelty of a society that neglects its citizens once they become old and inconvenient.
The characters are basically forced out of England. And while their journey East finds each searching for something specific—Graham to find a lost love, Norman to recapture his fleeting sexual swagger, and Muriel for a new hip—they’re really looking for a fresh start in a new place that will see them as valuable citizens, not just over the hill. The thematic gesture is sympathetic enough, and the acting, especially from Dench, Wilkinson, and Smith, whose wheelchair bound hauteur generates most of the film’s more successfully droll comedic moments, is uniformly exceptional (how could it be anything but?). The location—a place Evelyn describes as an “assault on the senses”—has a commendable tangibility that places viewers on the rickety, overcrowded bus that transports the heroes to the swelteringly hot and anciently rundown but beautifully hued and exotically magisterial hotel where they unpack their bags.
Most of the roadblocks lie in the script, which was written by Ol Parker based on the book These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach. It’s a bit scattershot and is bereft of the dramatic focus necessary to successfully explore the lives of any of its many characters. The film’s pivotal lens is supposedly Evelyn, whose blog provides a voice to the story’s What I Learned At Summer Camp pontificating. But even Evelyn’s tale of loss and loneliness and new beginnings starts to feel like a subplot in a script without a solid protagonist or an explicit story arch to guide its ensemble. Too much attention is paid to Patel’s Sonny, a peripheral character with a telemarketer sweetheart and a disapproving mother. Further hindered by its mawkish tone and abundance of clichés (before it starts take bets over which geezer will be the obligatory croaker), the movie strives for easy sentiment and tidy characterizations as opposed to any trace of genuine truth or honesty.
Viewers with a hunger for Dench’s regality and Smith’s trademark superciliousness—and those who want to get a taste of India without having to, you know, go to India—might just enjoy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its kitschy depiction of existential woe. Directed by John Madden (Shakespeare In Love), the film does have a sharp wit, but I’d prefer if it had narrowed its attention down to a more manageable subject of fruitful rumination rather than false endearment. For all its better qualities, this slightly miscalculated comedy-drama starts to feel like group therapy with a side of saffron rice, clumsily spooning out faux-inspirational messages and tired symbolism in an attempt to prompt some feel-good tears. Believe me, if I was crying at the end of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it was definitely from the curry.