When I first viewed the trailer for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I pretty much wrote it off. It looked like a relatively lazy recycling of tired clichés taken from other feel-good films about life, love, and coming to terms with something-or-other. I’m also usually wary of films with such over-hyped all-star casts. However, I’m never one to turn down a free movie, so when I heard that Milwaukee Film had free tickets for a sneak preview event, I decided to give it a shot. And damnit, this movie charmed the pants off me.
The movie tells the story of seven British retirees who, for one reason or another, all independently decide to move to India to stay at the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful.” Although the hotel was advertised as elegant and rife with luxuries and amenities, it turns out to be a run-down building owned and managed by the young and bumbling Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel). The film follows each ex-patriot as they learn to adapt to their new surroundings and come to terms with this new chapter in their lives.
Although I had reservations, the British ensemble cast was wonderful; a who’s-who of geriatric British actors familiar to American audiences. Maggie Smith, who I often tire of seeing in the same old, strict, British woman role again and again, excelled in a fresh role as a frail, working-class woman, seemingly without any family, hiding her insecurities behind harsh judgements and racism. Tom Wilkinson is incredible as a gay man who had been raised in India, trying to make amends with a childhood romantic partner who he had wronged. Judi Dench‘s character was perhaps the most one-dimensional. A recent widow struggling to come to terms with the unhappy end to a cold and reserved marriage, she at times ran the risk of being too flawless, lovable, and grandmotherly, always the sagely voice of wisdom, yet the character is saved by Dench’s trademark humor and humanity. Bill Nighy is at once heartwarming, tragic, and hilarious as the spontaneous and life-loving man unhappily married to a woman who refuses to open herself up to any new experiences,played by Penelope Wilton. Wilton’s character is utterly despicable, constantly raining on everyone else’s Indian parade, while herself refusing to even step outside the hotel. Her acting is sometimes a little much, coming off as legitimately unhinged at times rather than simply curmudgeonly. Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup offer some comic relief while each desperately attempt to reinvigorate their sex lives in any way possible.
The Indian actors are equally successful, although they do not have quite as interesting characters or nearly as much screen-time. Dev Patel (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) is funny and charming as Sonny, the young wannabe hotel manager, constantly overshadowed by his more successful and traditional family members. He lovingly exaggerates Indian mannerisms and syntax for comic effect, though never in a way that would be construed as offensive or broad. Tena Desae as his new-India girlfriend is an excellent foil for Sonny’s mother (Lillete Dubey), representing a traditional, conservative India, who wants Sonny to submit to an arranged marriage. Although neither character is particularly interesting or nuanced, both actresses perform admirably and provide much warmth and comedy.
While the film certainly is not immune to certain feel-good clichés of the genre, it is saved by the fact that the story lines are just slightly more nuanced than you might see in a similar style of film. These aren’t simply stories of “cranky lady learns to laugh” or “lonely man finds love.” There is a realism and a humanity behind the characters and their struggles that is touching. While some of the plot points were predictable, there were many others that actually surprised me and kept me guessing.
The film is beautifully shot on location, and India-philes will love many of the settings and themes. While there were a couple jokes about exaggerated Indian mannerisms, food, lifestyles, etc., in general the humor was not at the expense of Indian culture (a welcome change from many western portrayals of Indian-ness, in particular the recent and astonishingly racist American sitcom, Outsourced). Elements of the film still did give me pause, however, as there seemed to be a theme running throughout whereby the Brits educated Indians on the “proper way” to do certain things (such as when Judi Dench gets a job in a call center and teaches the Indian employees how to speak to old British people, or when Maggie Smith offers help in the running of the hotel).
Undeniably, the film is full of feel-good cheese, but sometimes you need that kind of movie, and this one really is an excellent example of the genre. While I am often a fan of films that offer a much bleaker view of aging (e.g. About Schmidt), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel offered a more hopeful outlook for the future. While it does not currently look promising that I’ll ever be able to retire to India (or at all, given the current economic forecast), this film suggests that it is never too late to open yourself to new experiences — whatever they may be — and to start a new chapter in your life. I know, it’s an incredibly clichéd message, but it really does go down easily in this charming and heart-warming film.