Note: I’m deviating from Bollywood fare in order to review a British film set in India that features Hindi-film actors Lillete Dubey, Rajendra Gupta, and Sid Makkar.
Early in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, married couple Jean (Penelope Wilton) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) tour a retirement home. The apartment they tour features a wall-mounted emergency call button to be used in case one should fall and need assistance. Jean caustically notes that the button is handy if she should happen to accidentally fall right next to it, but not so much if she falls anywhere else in the room.
My parents recently moved into a retirement community with a similar setup. To access their emergency call button, one of them would have to fall and land wedged between the TV set and the wall. I’m as skeptical of their button’s usefulness as Jean is of hers.
That sense of pragmatism pervades a movie with a somewhat a fantastical premise: starting a new life of luxury in exotic India. A brochure promises opulent retirement living for British pensioners at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful.
But it’s not a sense of adventure that leads the characters to move from England to India. For Jean, Douglas, Evelyn (Judi Dench), and Muriel (Maggie Smith), it’s financial worries. For Graham (Tom Wilkinson), it’s a desire to right a youthful mistake. And Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup) want to improve their romantic prospects.
When the group arrives in India, they discover that the hotel is not as luxurious as promised. The brochure depicts the vision young owner Sonny (Dev Patel) has for his family’s property, not its current derelict state. The manner in which the retirees deal with their situation makes up the meat of the story.
As my parents, in-laws, and their friends approach (and, in some cases, surpass) age 70, they’ve all repeated the same refrain: “Getting old sucks.” The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is so effective because it acknowledges that reality. No matter how well you think you’ve prepared for your later years, there always seems to be something — money, health, or family troubles — that makes a difficult stage of life even more so.
Acknowledging this reality allows the funny parts of the film to be that much more humorous. And The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a very funny movie.
Given the caliber of the cast, the performances are universally terrific, as each character adapts to the surroundings while addressing the issues that got him or her there in the first place. Penelope Wilton (Mrs. Crawley on Downton Abbey) is effective to an uncomfortable degree as Jean resists settling down in her unfamiliar new home.
Maggie Smith steals the show with her ludicrously inappropriate jabs, which are funny only because of how powerless she is. Awaiting her hip transplant in an Indian hospital, she reacts in shock to discover that her doctor is Indian. Predictably and appropriately, she takes strides to shed her prejudices over the course of the film.
Sonny’s storyline is the only aspect of the movie that doesn’t really work. Rather than intersecting his storyline with those of his tenants, his runs parallel to theirs. When new characters (e.g., his girlfriend and his disapproving mother) are introduced solely to augment Sonny’s story, it just highlights how separate that story is from the rest of the action.
That said, Dev Patel is very funny, and his storyline doesn’t detract much from what is overall a really enjoyable picture.