In some cases, such as with last week’s The Avengers, an immense satisfaction can come from seeing several beloved characters finally share the screen. In others, it’s just enough to see several well-endeared actors join together, regardless of the universe they share. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, for example, sets its ensemble in only the most colorful and charmingly dilapidated corners of Jaipur, India, a colonial fantasy inhabited by the elderly of England as they seek a reasonable retirement for themselves. When the cast in question includes Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Judi Dench, one doesn’t fear for flat performances, and if anything, the old pros are exactly what elevates Hotel’s otherwise pat screenplay into that sweet spot where predictability fails to negate pleasure.
We’re introduced in fairly short order to our seven leads: the newly widowed Evelyn (Dench), the recently retired Graham (Wilkinson), the restlessly married Douglas (Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton), the sugar daddy-seeking Madge (Celia Imrie), the younger girl-craving Norman (Ronald Pickup), and the staunchly xenophobic Muriel (Maggie Smith). They all have their reasons for taking the trip -- whether for new starts, old flames, or more affordable hip surgery -- and they all just happen to agree that the hotel of the title is the place for them. Of course, the establishment isn’t quite as shipshape as exceedingly earnest proprietor Sonny (Dev Patel) would have had them believe, but most of the crew decides to make the most of it... MUCH AS ONE DOES WITH LIFE.
Ol Parker’s adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s novel, “These Foolish Things,” is a tidy thing, full of simplistic character arcs and life lessons, and overstuffed at exactly one subplot too many. A romance between Sonny and a colleague of Evelyn’s at the call center where she finds herself employed for the first time in her life, tsk-tsked by his mother and her brother, feels wedged in to keep the proceedings from being too white and wrinkled for their own good. Yet, once the easy culture shock gags subside, the cast members rise to the occasion in a way Patel is never fully allowed and, perhaps, isn’t quite capable of at this point in his career.
For instance, Smith’s curmudgeonly ways are so viably ingrained in her body language, let alone the clipped tone of her frequent insults, that her inevitably heart-thawing transformation from racist prig to accepting resident becomes more bearable than it ought to be. More transparently charming are Imrie and Pickup, playing frisky beyond their years and making up for the script’s occasional Viagra crack, while Dench and Wilkinson each get to convey more melancholy tones of transition in the respective twilights of their lives. A fitting disparity of nuance falls between Wilton’s often harried turn and Nighy’s easygoing charm, underlined by a rightfully ragged outburst that brings out the actor’s too-seldom-seen emotional side.
It’s these grace notes of the characters’ (and perhaps the actors’) substantial life experience -- their desires, their frustrations, and so on -- that keep the featherweight film from drifting into navel-gazing Eat Pray Love territory, and with John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, last year’s The Debt) at the helm, there’s a tonal harmony amid all the travelogue moments that keeps the film a notch or two above the similarly wholesome likes of, say, the recent Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. As Sonny reassures his disappointed customers early on, “Everything will be alright in the end, and if it is not alright, then it is not the end.” The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is alright in the end, and for most of the two hours that precede it.