Upon arrival at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, its first guests cannot conceal their disappointment. “You Photoshopped it!” one says, aghast at how shabby the place looks when compared with its enticing pamphlet. “I offered a vision of the future,” replies the beaming young manager, apparently believing his own PR.
Fine, but time is running out on the future, and for that matter, so is money. Those first guests are seven British retirees who’ve been compelled, for various reasons, to outsource their retirement. Evelyn (Judi Dench), recently widowed, has been left in debt and had to sell her London flat. Muriel (Maggie Smith), a grouchy bigot, needs a cheap new hip. The Ainslies, Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton), went broke bankrolling their daughter’s failed startup. Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a just-retired High Court judge, lived in India once before and has returned with a regretful memory of lost love. Madge (Celia Imrie) merely hopes for one last chance at romance, while Norman (Ronald Pickup) hopes for one more one night stand, followed if possible by another and then another.
So here they all are in Jaipur, in decline. This setup smacks of post-colonial apologia, but apparently some internal consensus determined that to be too taxing. Why not take things easier, and limit ourselves to a humane and diverting little rally for affirmation over resignation? True, his name is Sonny and he’s played with deferential mania by the kid from “Slumdog Millionaire,” but our young manager (Dev Patel) is just so sincere about his entrepreneurial ambition — which, by the way, seeks a diversified clientele made up not only of doddering Brits but also people from “many other countries where they don’t like old people too.”
It is conceivable as one of those too-schematic contemporary French or Italian farces, but “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” truly breathes easiest when seeming unabashedly British. As adapted by Ol Parker from Deborah Moggach’s novel “These Foolish Things,” and stocked with that posh ensemble, it offers the familiar charms of poise and eloquence as trade-offs to any discomfiting residue of imperial impulse. And it gives director John Madden, most famously of “Shakespeare In Love,” everything he needs to mount a sturdy counter-programming campaign against early-onset summer blockbusters. For moviegoers of a certain age, unconcerned about demographic reductionism so long as it’s within their own demographic, this’ll do nicely for a Sunday matinee.
Of course its setting is a pastiche of received ideas: the vividly teeming streets, the propulsive drift of microtonal melodies, the food that wreaks havoc with delicate digestive systems. And of course it has all the expected turning points: a breakup, a hookup, a death in the makeshift family. The slightly crowded story inevitably strains credulity, too, as when Muriel’s racism gets magically redeemed by empathy for invisible servitude, thus unfairly stranding Smith’s performance in a pinched mode of “Downton Abbey” dowager countess no more, thank you very much. Or when Evelyn gets a job in a call center, instructing its operators, including Sonny’s girlfriend (Tena Desae), on conversational manners. Evelyn also blogs about her experiences, affording occasional superfluous narration. (“Could there be anywhere else in the world that is such an assault on the senses?” she asks. Guess not.)
Importantly, though, the movie also has strong sparks of life, as when Sonny applies his grasping upbeat spin to the impending marriage that’s been arranged for him by his domineering mother (Lillete Dubey); or when Douglas and Jean discover their own unhappy marriage eroded, by clashing worldviews, beyond the safety of politeness; or, especially, when Graham tells Evelyn about his history here, in a stunningly subtle duet scene that seems about as good as movie acting gets.
Even a self-selecting audience likely will cotton more to some of these characters than others, and not necessarily in a vitalizing way. But Madden manages a baseline of decency and compassion, and therefore comes by his affirmations honestly enough. Like its namesake, the movie itself too readily courts the unnatural gloss of the would-be tourist trap, and it needs a little time to get over that. Agreed, it could use some sprucing up, but even as it is this is not the worst Exotic Marigold Hotel.