[4 May 2012]
“Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not yet the end.” Sonny (Dev Patel) makes this pronouncement a few times in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, usually when everything is definitely not all right. Of course, the platitude tells you something about Sonny, the enthusiastic but overmatched proprietor of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful in Jaipur, India. It also describes the arc of this genial film, which never leads the audience to think it is going anywhere but toward that happy ending, even as it manages to be poignant and engaging along the way.
Sonny’s dream establishes that trajectory. He wants to run a hotel for British retirees in India that is so wonderful that they “refuse to die.” His idealism is matched by incompetence concerning finances, plumbing, and electricity too. Still, through the magic of the internet and Photoshop, he manages to convince seven retirees to travel halfway around the world to live out their golden years in a glorious, timeless palace. What they find instead is a decrepit building where the rooms are filled with dust and birds, and only occasionally have doors.
The set-up could have introduced a rather tragic tale about elderly people being scammed of all their savings and abandoned in a strange land. Instead, the film turns into a series of character studies, as these mostly plucky ex-pats treat their adversity as if it’s an adventure. Each has a story to play out. The recent widow Evelyn (Judi Dench) has never worked outside her home, and only after her husband’s death did she learn he was bankrupt. The long-married couple Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) are also contending with unexpected relative poverty, owing to investments in their daughter’s failed internet venture. In his return to India, where he grew up, former High Court judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson) seeks closure for a painful episode in his past. Singletons Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup) are also revisiting—or maybe reviving—their youth, each hoping to get laid one more time. And longtime housekeeper Muriel (Maggie Smith) arrives in Jaipur with the idea that she’ll be able to get a quick, low-cost hip replacement, even if this means she’ll need to put up with the Indians she’s unable to stomach on general racist principle.
As this list of situations suggests, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel can be episodic, as each story receives its due time on screen. It can also feel a little like a jobs program for British acting royalty. (The most surprising thing about the film might be that Ian McKellen isn’t in it.) But watching these actors work together is its own pleasure, and at times their mere presence compensates for the predictable plot.
That plot returns again and again to the Brits’ sense of dislocation in Jaipur, which is presented to showcase its chaos, noise, and color. Their tours of the city include the requisite stuck-in-traffic shots and interactions with street vendors. They see some of the poverty that pervades India, but at the same time, none of their encounters suggest the locals are ever unhappy or resentful toward the tourists. Most often, they’re recognizable types: Muriel will learn an important lesson through her exchanges with her own maid, a member of India’s “untouchable” caste, and Sonny’s girlfriend Sunaina (Tena Desae) works in a call center. His mother (Lillete Dubey), of course, disapproves of Sunaina, and wants to arrange a marriage.
Just so, India serves as the obligatory alien setting that jars the retirees into having their epiphanies. Though mortality is a frequent topic of discussion among the group, usually the script frames it with a well-placed joke. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel focuses less on approaching death and more on rediscovering life.
With this grownup focus, as well as its quietness and appealing cast, the film comes to US theaters this weekend as a calculated bit of counterprogramming against The Avengers. Call it a League of Extraordinary Thespians. This charming little movie will most certainly do all right in the end.