A dream team ensemble cast of British acting superstars gives a predictable story of displaced retirees spark and depth in this cozy tale based on the novel These Foolish Things, by Deborah Moggach.
A group of British retirees come to India for one last adventure. Or, they come because they have nowhere else to go. Some have not let themselves think about which it is, or whether it is both. Easy-going Douglas (Bill Nighy) and the perpetually disappointed Jean (“Downton Abbey’s” Penelope Wilton) come because their limited resources cannot cover the life Jean sees for herself. “Would it help if I apologize again?” he asks. “No, but do it anyway,” she replies.
Muriel (Maggie Smith) is appalled by having to leave “proper” Britain to live among foreigners but it is the only way she can get the operation she needs without long delays from the National Health Service. Evelyn (Judi Dench), a recent widow in reduced circumstances, must learn to take care of herself — and finds that she likes it. Madge (Celia Imrie, the “we’re going to need bigger buns” “Calendar Girl”) hopes to find romance. Norman (Ronald Pickup) wants something a bit more carnal. Graham (a courtly Tom Wilkinson) wants to reconnect with his past. They each find The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel “for the elderly and beautiful” in Jaipur via a website. When they arrive, they learn the description of “a luxury development for residents in their golden years” was more aspirational than accurate. “You Photoshopped it!” one new resident accuses. “I offered a vision of the future,” Sonny explains. He tells them that everything will be all right in the end and “if it is not all right, it is not the end.”
The young proprietor is Sonny (“Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel), whose grand plans and grander hopes for the hotel are so vivid he seems a bit surprised when it is pointed out that the the place is falling down and lacking some of the most basic of amenities, like doors with locks and reliable water. There are the expected culture clashes. The Brits are not used to chaotic riot of noise and color on the streets and the spicy food. But it is worth it to see Maggie Smith’s disdainful expression as she nibbles defiantly on the chocolate biscuits she brought from home, pronouncing, “I won’t eat anything I can’t pronounce!”
Seeing the impeccable performances of this magnificent cast is reason enough to see the film as these actors transform the most conventional of situations by making us care about the characters and their hopes. Wilton’s portrayal of Jean, the bitter wife, shows us how she cannot seem to find her way out of a labyrinth of disappointment. Dench as Evelyn, sitting on the phone listening to an endless recording telling her that her call is very important, knows that she has never really been very important. But there is something more than the kind of bittersweet but cozy story of plucky septuagenarians. Perhaps the reason they stay in the rundown hotel is that they understand how superficial appearances are. Perhaps the idea of restoring its grandeur to what it once was means something to them in a world where old age is “outsourced.” It is encouraging for some of them to learn that “like Darwin’s finches, we are slowly adapting to our environment.”
Parents should know that this film includes some strong language (f-word), sexual references (gay and straight) and partial nudity, sad death, and drinking.
Family discussion: Who gets the biggest surprise? Who changes the most?
If you like this, try: “Enchanted April,” “Monsoon Wedding,” “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont,” and “A Room With a View”