There’s very little to say about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel because, frustratingly, it has nothing of real value to say itself. Maybe there’s some worth to inoffensive, light, fluffy films in that they provide reasonable entertainment for a couple of hours– and god knows I like my fair share of films that fit that description– but even the airy stuff has to speak to us in some way and reach us on one level or another beyond the superficial. So then, this review should be taken well-salted, as its subject matter just didn’t do “it” for me, apart from providing some solid laughs, collecting an array of great performers in one winding sprawl of interconnected narratives, and showing off some dazzling location shots.
I’ll admit that sentence’s appeal is great. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say the poster alone should be enough to get most anyone with even cursory familiarity with British acting royalty into theaters. Judi Dench? Bill Nighy? Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton? Tom Wilkinson? I’d be remiss to exclude Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie, but they do less in the film and, frankly, aren’t as well-known to Americans as most of the others. (Wilton, I’ll acknowledge, is almost invisible state-side unless you watch BBC programming like Downton Abbey or love Shaun of the Dead.) They’re all a great deal of fun to watch as they play a host of elderly Brits facing late-life crises of varying persuasions; it’s just a shame that they’re not laboring in the service of something more thoughtful and memorable.
Each character’s respective quandaries lands them in Jaipur, where they seek out the eponymous hostelry for their own reasons. Doug (Nighy) and Jean (Wilton) have lost all their savings investing in their daughter’s Internet start-up; Evelyn (Dench), recently widowed, has sold her home to cover her husband’s debts; Graham (Wilkinson), a high-court judge, used to live in India and is seeking to reconnect with an old friend; Muriel (Smith) needs a cheap, fast hip replacement; Norman (Pickup) just wants carefree septuagenarian sex; and Madge (Imrie) wants to find another husband. (I’ll say without hesitation that some of them have better reasons than others.) Wisely, helmsman John Madden doesn’t waste much time getting these characters to the hotel and to its manager, Sonny (Dev Patel), an over-spirited and impossibly charming young man with troubles of his own.
Could it be that this hodgepodge of strangers might find solace and resolution in their woes through meeting and interacting with one another? One can only wonder for so long because The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel doesn’t really disguise any of its intentions. There’s an inevitability to the film; we all know where it’s going, and we all have a very solid idea of the notes the various narrative threads will end on. Our only task as the audience is to sit patiently and wait for Madden to get us to our final destination.
Predictability in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a hallmark of uninspired writing (courtesy of scribe Ol Parker, and likely as well Deborah Moggac, the author of the book the film is based on). And maybe that’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel‘s biggest flaw– it’s just plain bromidic, which lends the rest of the story an unfortunate foreseeable quality. Madden has no interest in obscuring the future; he’s made a feel-good picture, art that remains relatively unimpeded by the dark tinge of reality save in one mercifully non-telegraphed death. And, again, there’s nothing strictly wrong with that beyond the accompanying loss of greater overarching meaning and impact.
How, then, does a film like this justify its existence? Great character work and warm, genuine emotion. Both elements are undercut by a lack of serious intent– for a movie about mature people dealing with mature problems, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel itself isn’t particularly adult– but they nonetheless represent the best reasons to attend the local repertory theater for a screening. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is fun; its cast has fun, and Madden’s clearly having a good time behind the camera. Their joy is infectious, especially played against Indian locales which, even at their most impoverished and crowded, nonetheless prove themselves as beautiful, colorful, and alive settings.
Which yields a surprisingly firm backdrop for the cast to perform against. Realistically, I don’t know how much this counts for high praise; one could drop the likes of Wilkinson and Smith and Nighy into just about any film and they’d well avail themselves through their perfectly honed thespian skills. A good performance remains, however, a good performance, and so the biggest pleasure The Best Exotic Marigold offers lies in its display of high-caliber yet utterly, disarmingly relaxed acting. The aforementioned trio comprise the best of the bunch– notably Smith, who essentially plays a racist version of the harridan-type she portrays in Downton Abbey (where she gets to verbally spar with Wilton much more frequently)– but Pickup and Imrie get some of the best comedy beats in the whole film, Wilton manages to make us feel sorry for a character with no written sympathetic qualities, and Dench plays soulful, rueful melancholy without an ounce of falsity.
It’s just a shame to see all of their efforts put toward something that, ultimately, doesn’t wield a ton of dramatic weight. Certainly, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel can’t be called a failed movie, or even a bad one; it’s soap opera-quality storytelling boasting above-average filmmaking that’s masterfully acted by a group of endlessly gifted veterans. Though capable of pleasantly capturing our attention for two hours, there’s not much going on in the movie’s numerous arcs worth chewing over once we’re out of the theater.