What do you get when seven elderly, yet sprightly, Brits drop everything in their respective lives and jet off to a seemingly luxury hotel in Jaipur, India? Director John Madden's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the kind of cozy, feel-good situational comedy that you crave every once in a while. Armed with an enviable ensemble cast of stalwarts of British film and television, Madden's film is light-hearted stuff about cultural bridging, escapist desires, never-ending search for happiness and a glowing testament to the fact that life isn't downhill after 50.
Judi Dench leads the cast as the recently widowed Evelyn, who discovers her husband, on whom she was completely dependent, has left her with only debt. Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton play Douglas and Jean, a married couple of 40 years struck by the realization that along with their finances, their marriage is also in serious danger. High Court judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is bored in his monotonous life and is gripped by a sudden urge to return to India, where he grew up. Then there's Muriel (played by the feisty Maggie Smith), a grumpy working class woman with a racist disposition, who needs a hip replaced cheaply and quickly. The group is capped off by Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup), two singletons on the prowl, one for a serious partner and the other for a fun time.
Compelled by their own problems and desires, they all sign up for a trip to India, lured by an advertisement for a "luxury hotel" for "the elderly and the beautiful". What they find as they are bombarded by the heat, chaos and culture shock of being in India, is an old establishment in shambles run by an over-enthusiastic and idealistic manager Sonny (Dev Patel).
As the elderly visitors decide to make the most of the hotel anyway - for one reason or another - Sonny is fighting his own battles. His mother (Lillette Dubey) doesn't have faith in his ability (and dream) to make the hotel successful, and also disapproves of his beautiful girlfriend (Tina Desae) who works at a call center.
The various character arcs range from endearing to heartbreaking, with Evelyn (Dench) gradually becoming a narrator as she blogs about her experiences in India. In one of her entries, she writes, "This is a new and different world. The challenge is to cope with it. And not just cope, but thrive." The various characters go through steady realizations of accomplishing or accepting the one thing that brought them to India. The "new world" Evelyn speaks of is not just the literal - India - but also the second innings at life that the group must learn to embrace. It's their journey to learn that growing old doesn't have to mean an end to adventure, self-fulfillment or growth.
The British cast carry the film confidently through all of its strengths and weaknesses. Even the cliched jokes about the Kama Sutra, chaotic traffic, and several other Indian idiosyncrasies are closely steered away from coming off as repetitive. Each of the actors displays a fine balance of quirkiness and poise as they tackle through their character's dilemmas. Even Wilton, as the perpetually dissatisfied Jean, never once becomes antagonistic as she displays with nuance a woman desperate for genuine attention. It's rare for such a large ensemble cast to be so evenly matched but all seven British actors get it just right.
Patel deserves major brownie points for holding his own amidst seven senior actors (and often all in one scene), but his rattlebrained act gets annoying at times. There are moments where he proves his impeccable comic timing, but then he just as easily goes overboard trying to compensate for his much calmer and more graceful co-stars.
Madden and writer Ol Parker have based the film on the book 'These Foolish Things' by Deborah Moggach, making it crisp, fluid without ever getting too heavy. India is an ever-present backdrop in the story, but never quite a character. However, more powerful than the visuals of India is the background score by Thomas Newman. He deserves special mention for supporting the characters and their story with an effervescent soundtrack that captures the mystique of the setting, blending it with the inner emotions of the characters.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a charming film, the warm-hearted stuff that is perfect fodder for a relaxing evening. Don't expect path-breaking, profound cinema here. Watch it for the lovable performances and brilliant score by Thomas Newman. And no, it's not meant just for people over 50.