“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a creaky Indian guesthouse that seven British retirees check into as they go looking for a better life.
They end up finding themselves in the movie that bears the same name as the hotel, starring two great dames of the British stage, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.
It all starts off amusingly, with director John Madden introducing the characters one by one. Dench plays newly widowed Evelyn, who has just inherited her husband’s hidden debts and quibbles all day long with Indian call-center operators demanding to speak to the (dead) accountholder.
Smith plays a retired, xenophobic housekeeper called Muriel who’s cooped up in a hospital and is demanding an English doctor. She’s about to fly to India, of all places, for hip surgery.
The lone married couple in the group are Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton). They’ve sunk their savings into their daughter’s new venture, and now can only afford a cramped house with senior-citizen fittings.
Two desperate singletons also make the Jaipur journey. Norman (Ronald Pickup) is a speed-dating Lothario who prays for just one more night of hot sex. Madge (Celia Imrie) is an attractive granny craving a new man.
The other unattached guest is Graham, a high-court judge who just retired after a lifetime of success and unhappiness, and is heading back to the India of his childhood.
Somehow, the seven oddballs are all hoodwinked by publicity for the Jaipur guesthouse. There they all are, waiting to board their plane. The sight of so many stage legends sitting wearily in an airport lounge is quite something.
The pensioners are greeted on arrival by goofy Sonny Kapoor -- played by Dev Patel, the young star of “Slumdog Millionaire,” who is now taller though still boyish-looking. Sonny has converted his late father’s dusty inn into a boarding house for the “elderly and beautiful.”
In the rough and tumble of Jaipur, lost loves and new loves are found, relationships reshaped, and lives transformed.
Dench’s character Evelyn, an honest do-gooder, takes an instant shine to the subcontinent, and gets a call-center job training operators on how to address the elderly. Muriel -- who was dumped by the British family she served for a lifetime -- warms to the natives and settles into the hotel.
The only one resisting the urge to open up is grumpy, married Jean (Wilton). As the domineering wife forever holed up in her hotel room, she turns out to be one of the truer-to-life characters in the film. Wilton expertly conveys her bitterness and sarcasm, and delivers a strong performance.
Everyone else turns into a marshmallow on arrival. Even Muriel, who never stopped sniping at foreigners in her wheelchair back home, is miraculously mollified by the experience of watching an untouchable woman sweep the courtyard.
The film’s producers have thrown together a couple of winning formulas. They’ve combined the actor, atmosphere, and setting of “Slumdog Millionaire” with a cast you might find in a Merchant-Ivory colonial saga.
On paper, it sounds like a fine recipe. In practice, it ends up being mushy and sentimental in a way middle-class Britons aren’t -- not even in old age, and not even when loneliness bites. Ol Parker’s script and Madden’s directing lead even seasoned thespians like Smith and Nighy to go off key.
On the plus side, this is a rare movie with a cast of sixty- and even seventy-somethings. The famously ageist film industry is finally taking pains to tell a story of retirement and old age. Shifting demographics may explain it.
Beyond that, there are charming and occasionally even side-splitting moments when the better lines of dialogue are delivered, deadpan, by the cast.
The film is worth seeing. Just don’t expect it to be as good as the actors in it can be. Rating: **1/2.
“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is out in the U.K. and Ireland and is set to be released in the U.S. on May 4.
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(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)