★ ★ ★
Starring Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Dev Patel, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie and Penelope Wilton. Written by Ol Parker. Directed by John Madden.
What do The Avengers and a comedy about senior citizens in India have in common? A group of remarkably talented people coming together to combat a threat greater than any of them alone could handle. In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, though, the superhuman talents are the fantastic elder British thespians in the cast, and they wage a successful battle against a script that repeatedly threatens to collapse into simple sentimentality.
The story follows a cast of aging Britons who decide to live out their final years in the titular Indian retirement home. Our fish-out-of-water protagonists are capable Evelyn (Dench); amiable husband Douglas (Nighy) and uptight wife Jean (Wilton); embittered racist Muriel (Smith); prestigious former judge Graham (Wilkinson); and senior pickup artists Norman (Pickup, pun inevitable) and Madge (Imrie). As the hotel's inaugural group of residents, the retirees band together somewhat, and naturally learn some things about themselves and the aging process. But as financial troubles plague the hotel's owner (Patel), the Brits may be the only ones able to prevent their new home from shutting down.
As you might predict, the script here is fairly predictable. The seniors with seemingly hard-wired character flaws magically see the error of their ways and reform (or, in the case of one character, get written out of the situation entirely). Although Wilkinson's character's conflict is somewhat daring, the resolution to it isn't. A lot of this stuff is hokey. Or heartwarming, depending on how well-tuned your sense of reality is.
And yet...that cast. The British leads are all masters of their craft, some better-known than others, and they bring notable depth to somewhat shallow characters. There's something in the eyes of all the elder leads that tells you far more than the script does. It's almost difficult to single out a favorite, but Smith's fussy, ill-tempered mannerisms as the group's resident Indian-hater are great, and she even manages to sell the character's unlikely change of heart. Despite the script's flaws, these experienced charmers make Marigold far more enjoyable than it theoretically should be. Now let's see them take on Loki. —Patrick Dunn