The full title of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel includes the phrase "for the elderly and beautiful," which is both a nice sentiment and an important clue about the potential audience for a film so pleasantly indifferent to the exigencies of the current summer movie scene. Directed by John Madden, the guy who made Shakespeare in Love, Best Exotic is a light-if-not-lite "tradition of quality" picture all the way. But has there ever been a time when there were so many quality movies in theaters that they could be freely ignored?
The film gathers up seven financially strapped (or just plain unhappy) aging Brits — among them a recently retired judge (Tom Wilkinson), a married couple (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) who've given their daughter their nest egg so she can finance an internet startup, an ornery old woman (Maggie Smith) looking for a cheap hip replacement, and a pair of aging swinger types (Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie) — and sends them off to Jaipur, India, where they hope to spend their golden years in relatively inexpensive comfort.
Sending old people to India for relaxation is a pretty good running joke. I spent some time in Jaipur 11 years ago, and even as a hardy, well-traveled twentysomething, I was excited, overwhelmed, and exhausted by its abundance of people, sounds, colors, and commotion. (Over the course of a single afternoon, I saw a traffic fatality, a riot, and a wedding procession.) Best Exotic doesn't have much to say about India beyond some similarly generic observations about the chaos of its big cities, but it does a very fine job at seeing the country from a befuddled tourist's point of view.
Once the guests arrive and discover that their future retirement tabernacle is a far cry from the images in the brochure, the floor plan of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel starts to look pretty familiar. It's easy to find your way around the story — just ask the right questions. Is the married couple really happy? Who is the judge looking for? Will the old swingers find love? Wouldn't a few coats of paint brighten the old place up?
The film is an effective ensemble piece and a gentle satire of both master-servant dynamics and the outsourcing craze. It's most successful, however, as a valentine to its star, 77-year-old Dame Judi Dench. Dench plays a recent widow headed to India to escape her husband's bad debts, and the film's most emotionally satisfying scenes occur when the other actors get to play off Dench's unique, unflappable sensuality. Everyone — from Nighy and his stammering Bob Newhart-isms to Wilkinson and his tart kindness to Dev Patel and his double-talking hyperactivity — looks better after they spend some time with her.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Opening Friday, May 25th