India is the new Italy for retirees seeking a hot climate to renew their lust for life, based on the evidence of comedy-drama “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Frequently droll and likable, albeit thoroughly predictable, helmer John Madden’s latest boasts a crack cast of seasoned thesps who sock over every wry line and wring maximum emotional resonance from a sometimes clunky script about a gaggle of Brit seniors who move to Jaipur. The potentially huge but usually underserved demographic of 50-plus auds could take a real shine to “Marigold,” if cultivated correctly.
Quickfire opening montage, featuring tiny scenes spliced together so quickly it plays like a 50 Cent video, relates the circumstances of the pic’s seven elderly protags. Recently widowed Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) has just found out her late husband frittered away most of their money and has to sell her plush London home to pay off debts. Married couple Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) have likewise been unlucky and lost all their savings investing in their daughter’s struggling startup.
Senior singletons Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) and Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) long to find new love partners, or, in Norman’s case, to just get to have sex again. Retired high-court judge Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) merely longs for a change of scene. Finally, diehard xenophobe Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) discovers that getting a hip replacement and recovering from it in India would be a better option than what’s on offer from Blighty’s national health service.
All of the above thus choose to “outsource” themselves to the newly opened Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in Jaipur, a once-stately, now-ramshackle palace that irrepressibly optimistic owner Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) has presciently marketed to the Geritol set as a retirement residence. However, he’s rather played down in his brochure the lack of doors on some of the rooms and presence of roosting pigeons in others.
The seven transplants take up various attitudinal positions on India. Having been raised there as a child and back now to search for a long-lost love, Graham embraces India’s challenges, its kind people and beauty. At the other end of the spectrum, Jean is horrified by the inefficiency and squalor, and refuses to venture further than the hotel compound, while Muriel, incapacitated by her surgery, similarly stays put and insists she won’t eat anything she doesn’t know how to pronounce.
Perhaps trying to reflect the sensory overload of the country in which it’s set, the pic barely relaxes the pace after its whirlwind opening. Script by Ol Parker, adapted from a novel by Deborah Moggach, quickly cycles through the various characters’ storylines as the relationships between them fracture and reconfigure with dizzying speed.
At times it feels as if Parker and Madden (“The Debt”) have crammed in too much, the equivalent of six months’ worth of soap-opera action, into the two-hour running time. The speed with which Muriel, for instance, converts from total racist to wise, kindly old dear by the end stretches credibility too far, even allowing for the slack auds will cut the ever lovable Smith in the role. Elsewhere, some might feel uncomfortable about the fact that the only gay character gets handily killed off before he does anything that might frighten the horses or the film’s more conservative target aud.
However, the powerhouse cast is so capable, the actors just about manage to play the pic as if it were a “Midsummer Night’s Dream”-style frothy farce, with marigold garlands and picturesque poverty. Even when things grow a bit darker, there are still zingers to be enjoyed, such as when Imrie’s vampish Madge, dreading old age, tartly declaims, “I don’t want to be the first person they let off the train in a hostage crisis.”
Underneath all larkiness, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” makes interesting points about the challenges facing elderly people trying to cope in an adverse economic climate, and the globalization of service industries. Although the point is too tidily made, there’s an interesting parallel between the way companies outsource customer care to call centers in India and the way seniors are forced to retire to developing nations where their money will go further. Ten or 20 years ago, the pic’s characters might have found themselves in Spain’s Costa del Sol or one of Italy’s remoter regions, but the weakness of the pound versus the Euro makes the core premise a not unlikely one.
Use of color and sound reps the standout element of the pro tech package, and the assistant director deserves a particular shoutout for wrangling the crowd scenes so well. Location work ably captures the dusty, dirty vigor and visual glory of Jaipur.