A film review by Craig J. Koban June 7, 2012


2012, PG-13, 124 mins.


Evelyn: Judi Dench / Muriel: Maggie Smith / Douglas: Bill Nighy / Jean: Penelope Wilton / Graham: Tom Wilkinson / Madge: Celia Imrie / Norman: Ronald Pickup / Sonny: Dev Patel / Sunaina: Tena Desae

Directed by John Madden / Written by Ol Parker, based on Deborah Moggach's These Foolish Things

There are some films where seemingly nothing can overcome their clichés, preordained story conventions, and obviousness as a piece of audience-placating pap other than the greatness and appeal of their lead actors.  John Madden’s (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE) THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL – based on the Deborah Moggach 2004 novel THESE FOOLISH THINGS – is just one of those films.  

With a lesser conglomeration of actors, the film would have been all but worn down to the level of a disposable, feel-good TV movie of the week.  Yet, this is a film that has the likes of – ahem – Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, and Penelope Wilton – who are able to effortlessly transcend the film’s overt predictability and infuse some charm, heart and soul into the proceedings.  THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL is not a film of grand narrative or thematic ambition, per se, other than to let these veteran actors do what they do best. 

Adapted to the screen by IMAGINE ME AND YOU’s Ol Parker, THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL does indeed involve a hotel that is not nearly as exotic as initially advertised.  In Jaipur – a popular tourist destination in Rajasthan – resides the aforementioned hotel that, in one falsely lush and inviting brochure, seduces prospective visitors to come for an extended stay.  The brochure greatly inspires a ragtag group of U.K. retirees who hope to escape their respective hardships in their home country for a comfortable and relaxing retreat at the hotel where they hope to remain during their finals years that they have left.  If I were a lonely and/or depressed old person and read the hotel’s brochure – it’s a place for “the elderly and beautiful” and a “luxury development where all of the residents are in their Golden years” – then, yeah, I’d want in too. 

The geriatric squad in question is comprised of Evelyn (Judi Dench), a recent widower who has very little money after her husband as passed and is looking for a new – and cheaper – lease on life; Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is a retired judge that seems to have a comfortable level of wealth, but is drawn back to India for mysterious personal reasons; Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilson) are a long-term married, but recently unhappy couple that lost all their retirement savings on a bad investment and now see India as the best place to be; Norman (Ronald Pickup) is…well…just a horny ol’ bugger that’s looking to score; Madge (Celia Imre) seems to want much of what Norman wants, but with less of a salivating urge; and finally there’s Muriel (Maggie Smith) a grumpy old bigoted woman that hates “brown faces and black hearts, reeking of curry” and any other race beyond her own that is forced to go to India for a faster and cheaper hip replacement surgery.  



Unsurprisingly, when the seven hopeful Brits make it to the hotel, it is everything but their ideal retirement villa.  Run enthusiastically, but rather idiotically by a young idealist, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Petel from SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) who hopes to make the estate something grander than it is, The Marigold Hotel is pretty falsely advertised: there are no phones, no doors on most rooms, dust cakes every piece of furniture, wild animals occupy some rooms, and etc.  Yet, Sonny believes that the hotel can work with a proper injection of capital and his mother’s (Lillete Dubey) blessing.  She is less than enthused by Sonny’s wild ideas, not to mention his "unsuitable relationship with a sweet call center operator Sunaina (Tena Desae).  While Sonny desperately tries to keep the hotel afloat, the guests acclimatize themselves to their new foreign surroundings, some better than others. 

Nothing in particular about THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL is inspiringly novel.  Tales of retirement-self-actualization and renewal are hardly new, not to mention placing people in a fish-out-of-water comedic narrative in an unknown foreign country are a dime-a-dozen.  The story itself feels more dutifully manufactured than naturally occurring and resolutions to the various subplots seem painfully inevitable from the start: Nighy’s unhappy husband will eventually confront his nagging and dissatisfied wife; Wilkinson’s judge will come to grips with his past and seek emotional closure; Imrie and Pickup’s aging hedonistic impulses will be appeased; Sonny's hostile mother will warm over to her son's business goals and choice of girlfriends; and, uh-huh, you just know that the toxic racist who despises any person of color that is Smith's Muriel will come to – gosh darn it – really love India and its people.  Things happen to the characters in THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL not because they make sense, but because they are a screenwriter's concoction to satisfy what viewers demand for happy closure. 

Yet, the film is a treasure trove of strong performances that, again, elevate this banal material.  Nighy has of those mischievous fluttering eyes and staccato line deliver that kills in just about everything he’s in; Dench – who typically plays hard-edged and tough minded authority figures – is refreshingly tender, vulnerably and uncertain of herself as Evelyn.  Smith has an uncanny manner of making her cruel and spiteful figure of racial hate oddly endearing.  Wilkinson, among all of the actors, has the toughest and trickiest arc playing the most melancholic and touching character of the group, who harbors lifelong secrets about a past love he left in India during his youth.  Wilkinson is so strong at playing this role’s guilt, regret, and resolve with a humility, humor, and compassion; I could have watched an entire film just about Graham’s story arc.

Of course, India is portrayed as it is, I guess, as a country that bursting at the seams with overpopulation, hard-hitting ambient noise, and abject poverty, but it is also shown as a place of striking color and ethereal beauty (if anything, THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL is an exquisite looking travelogue picture).  Beyond that, there’s simply not much narrative invention here beyond that of being a sweet, easily digestible, and pleasant tale of seniors rediscovering themselves at the twilight of their lives that’s equal parts delightful, light-hearted, inoffensive, and artificial.  It opened opposite of THE AVENGERS, which I labeled in my review as a well-made movie “product” designed to placate its young audiences.  THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL is ironically no different as a counter-programmed viewing choice: it’s just as pre-packaged towards middle-aged-and-up viewers and appeals to their needs.   Yeah, the film is a pandering audience pleaser, but you could not have asked for a better cast at the top of their game to make its artificial feel-good sentiment go down more smoothly.    

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