WESTERNERS OF a certain age go to India for both enlightenment and retirement in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
It’s “Eat, Pray, Love” for the AARP — which, in a worst-case scenario, might play like “Eat, Complain and Continue Eating.”
Here, though, we have John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) directing a treasure trove of top-notch British actors who bring professionalism and humanity to a leisurely story that never sinks under the weight of a sentimental script.
Keeping it aloft are pros like Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith as retirees of diminished circumstance who fly to India for cheap surgeries, vacations or retirement options, and end up at the same ramshackle hotel.
Dench, a widow left nearly penniless by her husband, is perfectly cast as a career housewife who finds reserves of self-reliance, and a late-in-life career, by taking an open mind with her to India. She attracts the attention of Nighy, a decent man in the throes of a dying marriage to Penelope Wilton, who is herself attracted to the group’s mystery man (Tom Wilkinson), in the country to sort out elements of a secret past.
Smith does a nice job with a very tricky, schematic character — an unreconstructed racist whose disdain for the hotel’s Indian staff transforms when she bonds with a maid over their shared life histories as marginalized domestic workers. Nighy and Wilton also work to deepen a potentially shallow depiction of the henpecked man joined to a shrew of a wife — in gesture and in tone, Nighy shows that he understands he’s failed to give her the life she’s expected, and Wilton shows us a woman who let disappointment turn to anger and reproach. In a crucial scene, we see the disintegrated couple remember being in love, and it’s a nice moment.
“Best Exotic Marigold” has several of them, even if it’s content to coast along as a predictable comedy, and some of its actors can’t do much with stock characters — hotel operator Dev Patel is a wannabe entrepreneur whose hustle outmatches his competence, Celia Imrie is a golden-age gold digger and Ronald Pickup is an elderly lech.
All in all, though, it works, as the kind of sun-drenched, amiable, stylishly photographed art-house travelogue that a few years ago would have been set in Positano, Italy, or the South of France.
Now, Hollywood is looking east, and the on-location Rajasthan, India, shooting adds spice to the story, as does the cultural nuance. The hotel operator’s business plan — catering to countries where they “don’t like old people” — sounds like a winner.