As a preamble setup to this mostly charming but occasionally sentimentally soupy affair, we are introduced to the motley lot of British seniors back home in England. These are not affluent types aiming to “go exotic” in swanky digs as a way to experience India, removed from its realities, but people of limited means and with a need to escape to this reasonable place with the unwieldy name, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Upon arrival, to a place less than the sum of its advertised parts, the characters cohere into an ensemble, with assorted interactive backstories and current stories. It’s an entertaining enough premise, with the added distinctive attraction of its focus on characters of a certain age.
Working off of the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, director John (Shakespeare in Love) Madden has put together an uneven but often involving seriocomic tale, built on the themes of culture clash and symbiosis and life’s foibles from late in the game. At the film’s worst, we are led into that faux golden aura of the Eat Pray Love variety, when empathy with the characters as living, breathing folks gives way to show-biz slickness. At its best, the ensemble weave of the piece is its own reward, with special notice going to the engaging acting powers of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Bill Nighy. Ace film composer Thomas Newman manages the telling feat of blending together aspects of the two cultures in question in the story, with a tasty and cool Indo-Western aesthetic.
Along the way, the characters brush across physical and philosophical issues. At one point, the most cynical, India-phobic transplant of the bunch sizes up the retirement hotel’s agenda as a plan to “outsource old age” and asks Wilkinson’s character what he sees in the place. “The light, the colors, and the way people see life as a privilege and not a right.” Later in the film, a character offers a shrugging observation: “The measure of success is how you deal with disappointments. We get up in the morning. We do our best. Nothing else matters.” Of course, that’s not all that matters, a point put forth by the life-affirming movie before us. Generally, we buy into its affirmative message, when it’s not smelling of movie-time hokum.