A-list Brits liven up Marigold Hotel

Judi Dench et al manage to rise above a middling script.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is an autumnal, subdued rom-com, its jokes about getting it up, narrow minds and cranky dispositions tempered by an awareness of last chances, regrets and resentments. Having entered their September years, a small group of elderly Brits travels to India to settle down in the hotel of the title. What they find upon arrival doesn’t quite live up to the brochure.

Run by the enthusiastic, eager-to-please Sonny (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire), the hotel is rundown just enough to cause a bit of dismay without sending anyone scrambling for the nearest tuk-tuk back to the airport. Its young proprietor has dreams of restoring the building to its former luster and marrying his girlfriend, desires that put him at odds with his protective, tradition-minded mother.

Sonny’s guests have less a sense of “the end” than anxiety about what the future holds. Dame Maggie Smith (Harry Potter, Downton Abbey) is a former house servant, wheelchair bound and in India for a hip replacement. Her cranky, racist character undergoes a transformation that stretches believability, but Smith makes it work within this undemanding context. The other dame of the troupe, Judi Dench (Casino Royale, Mrs. Brown), plays a widow whose husband’s debts compelled the sale of her home. Bill Nighy is, as usual, cool and regal (and a bit beaten down) as an emasculated husband who maintains his dignity through loyalty to his curmudgeon of a wife (Penelope Wilton). Tom Wilkinson (Batman Begins, In the Bedroom) portrays a just-retired judge returning to India to find the lost love of his youth.

Considering the fine work they do, it feels odd to say, but director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Debt) and his strong cast are too talented for this unfocused material. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is breezy to a fault — forgoing the opportunity to explore assimilation into a new culture, and instead carrying on its light winds the whiff of old-time colonialism. The Brits arrive to show the natives how wrong they’ve been doing things — from swinging the cricket bat to manning a call center to managing a hotel.

Any of these characters, including Sonny, would have been a suitable subject for a feature-length film. Thrown together in this ensemble soup, they’re underdeveloped. The film looks great, bursting with color once it arrives in India. But the pretty scenery is just that — a pleasant-looking background to thinly sketched characters with whom we spend just enough time to find them of passing interest.

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