The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is continually resuscitated by the basic elements of its conceit. Based on the 2004 novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, it tells of a handful of senior citizens who converge on a 55-and-over retreat in India, and the golden-year stars and golden-hot locale offer grand assistance to screenwriter Ol Parker, whose adaptation otherwise feels like a rather workaday rom-com. The dialogue penned for the characters isn't without heart or interest, but it's much ado about little until spoken by the likes of Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Maggie Smith, who lend the material a sizable touch of class. Clustered together as if headed to a summer camp for West End stage greats, the distinguished company of Dames and Sirs (also on board are Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, and Celia Imrie) provides numerous pockets of earnest interplay, and the surroundings, a bejeweled bit of third-world bustle that visually recalls Fernando Meirelles's shaky-cam stomping grounds, manage to add urgency and natural beauty to a plot flecked with saccharine flourishes. Sure, there are jokes about “the Interweb” and a requisite Viagra gag, but there are also ample handsome scenes made tender by a royal court of thespians, who are so likable even the array of bad English teeth has a tickling charm.
Though past what many would call their “professional primes,” veteran actors can seem as immortal as their younger successors, cast as they often are in roles of power and influence, and saved, through cinema's adoration and preservation of its seasoned stars, from the burden of mortality faced by the rest of humankind's silver foxes. It's a bit jarring, then, to see Dench struggle with WiFi questions during a nagging tech support call, or see Nighy get the skinny on the wheelchair-friendly amenities of a generic retirement condo. Likewise, to see Smith out of period regalia is off-kilter enough, but to see her barely coping with the toils of hip-replacement surgery is downright alien. While certainly not above exploiting this bittersweet humility for broad humor, Marigold Hotel largely puts it to proper use, uniting the characters on their common existential pilgrimage.
Dench is Evelyn, a recent widow whose possessions are being sold off to free her from debt. Nighy is Douglas, a government worker whose daughter poorly invested his retirement funds, and whose wife, Jean (Wilton), is a walking storm cloud of miserable entitlement. Smith is Muriel, a retired housemaid with a vicious racist streak (“That color's not gonna come off!” she chirps to a black doctor washing his hands), and Wilkinson is Graham, an obligatorily tragic homosexual who has unfinished business in the film's exotic setting. The final two to be serendipitously whisked away to the title's seemingly luxe resort, whose online ad doubles as the film's opening credit sequence, are Madge (Imrie) and Norman (Pickup), a pair of like-minded oat-sowers who seem bound to wind up between each other's patchouli-scented sheets.
Altogether, this is a rare and refreshing package, handing the usual couplings, comedy, and dramatic beats not just to older characters, but to older characters embodied by near-infallible actors. Nighy is raw and heartbreaking with every syllable that leaves his lips, Smith turns third-act bow-tying into uppity, Brit-bitch bliss, and Dench makes banal voiceover narration sound like velvety wisdom to live by. If the film itself, directed with middlebrow snuggliness by John Madden, were on the same profound plane as its cast, there may have been something truly unforgettable here. Unfortunately, Madden and company are too susceptible to the influence of conformity, whose dirty fingerprints are all over a subplot involving the hotel's young manager (Dev Patel), a bumbling idealist who's also looking for love and life's big answers, and who'll need the help of his tenants to—womp, womp—save his not-quite-as-advertised establishment. Though offensive culture caricatures are thankfully kept to a bare minimum, Marigold Hotel does use its environment's rigid traditions to phone in a climax about passion versus institution, and above all else, the accomplished performers are made to look a bit foolish scampering around amid such quaintly contrived circumstances. The film is home to some unique redeeming factors, but it panders to viewers by diluting its lesson, which teaches that some comfort zones can only be truly abandoned on the other side of the world.