Buoyed by a cast of actors of the venerable, superb British kind, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” can’t help but trigger a smile and score poignancy points as its retirement-age protagonists chuck their stuffy lives and stifling baggage and brave fresh waters half a world away.
But a good movie this isn’t. Shallow screenwriting, phony minidramas and geezer cliches undermine credibility and emotional power.
Directed by John Madden (whose films include competent but conventional fare such as “Shakespeare in Love” and last year’s “The Debt”) and written by Ol Parker, adapting a novel by Deborah Moggach, the movie is a safe, sunny dramedy that suggests a “Full Monty”-like take-the-plunge serio-romp crossed with a Merchant-Ivory “prestige” production.
The primary setting is contemporary India, presented as a land of vibrancy, color and old-age “outsourcing.” The latter element attracts seven British seniors to the title lodging, each prompted by something personal.
Evelyn (Judi Dench), a long-sheltered, debt-saddled widow, wants to feel independent. Muriel (Maggie Smith), a bitter, bigoted former housekeeper, needs hip surgery pronto. Unhappily married Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) made a losing investment. Graham (Tom Wilkinson) grew up in India and left his heart there.
Norman (Ronald Pickup) wants romantic action. Madge (Celia Imrie), too, seeks love.
Off to Jaipur they go, only to discover that their new home isn’t the luxurious golden-years haven shown in the ad but, rather, a run-down mess whose too-enthusiastic young manager, Sonny (Dev Patel), with some help from Photoshop, has oversold things.
As the seven cope with the conditions at the hotel, and experience Indian culture on the streets nearby, seniors-in-a-strange-land dynamics ensue, followed by enlightenment.
Evelyn, welcoming her new life, gets a job and blogs about her experiences, for starters. Meek Douglas becomes adventurous.
The cast provides some choice moments. Dench as the blossoming widow and Wilkinson as the sad judge putting closure on his past are particularly nuanced and touching. Smith can ace a quip.
But Madden reaps little reality from Parker’s screenplay, and contrived scenarios and pat outcomes outweigh the spark. Like “The Help,” the film glosses over the serious facets of its central subject and lays on the artificial sunshine. It sugarcoats the darker aspects of old age — health problems, financial stress, debilitating disappointment.
The characters — stuck-in-her-ways Jean, Viagra-fueled Norman — are one-dimensional, meanwhile, and India receives similar treatment. Old-versus-new contrasts play out in a tedious subplot involving Sonny’s traditional mother and modern girlfriend. Muriel’s late-inning transformation is impossible to believe.
All of which makes for superficially pleasant but increasingly frustrating entertainment that, for all its focus on embracing the new, is sadly creaky. However rosy the picture here, the waste of talent is depressing.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ★★
Starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson
Written by Ol Parker
Directed by John Madden
Running time 2 hours, 2 minutes