A charming and heartfelt comedy, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” gathers seven veteran British actors in a screenplay that can barely contain them. Even at 2-plus hours – relatively long for a comedy – it feels short. There are so many quirks to these characters, so many stories to tell, the film could happily traipse on for another two hours.
It goes like this: In the bustling Indian city of Jaipur, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a dilapidated resort community that specializes in British retirees. The upside? The Marigold is a cheap place to spend your golden years, and the weather is right. The downside: There are pigeons roosting in the rooms, and the Marigold has no tradition of locks. Or doors.
Judi Dench leads the ensemble cast as Evelyn, a grieving widow who departs for India when she realizes her late husband hasn’t left enough money to live on. En route, she makes the acquaintance of her soon-to-be neighbors, all of whom are headed to the Marigold for an affordable retirement.
After a journey of planes, trains and some very dubious automobiles, the crew is assembled: Muriel (Maggie Smith) a retired governess in need of a cheap hip replacement; Madge and Norman (Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup), two still-swinging singles looking for love; the unhappily married Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton); and Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a London barrister who spent his youth in Jaipur, and is returning to find his long lost love.
Marigold manager Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”) greets his new guests – his only guests, it turns out – with painfully earnest enthusiasm. Sonny has inherited the rundown hotel from his late father, and he’s got big plans. Well, more dreams than plans. But his heart’s in the right place, and he truly wants to make the Marigold – as the hotel motto reads – “a home for the elderly and beautiful.”
It’s a rich comic setup, and director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) provides plenty of good laughs as the Marigold residents adjust to their new lives. Evelyn takes a job at a call center where she instructs the young Indian cube-dwellers on proper British phone etiquette. Madge cruises the expat hotels looking for a new spouse. (“How many husbands have you had?” she’s asked at one point. “Including my own?” she replies. Wait for it.)
But it’s Graham’s story that occupies the heart of the film, as he scours Jaipur for his childhood love. Always a fine actor, Wilkinson finds a depth of characterization here that provides “Marigold” with its center. He has a scene early on where he confides in Dench, and in a single monologue delivers an emotional biography of a noble, lonely man. Great screen actors can do that, and it’s always amazing to watch.
Madden also gives us some lovely images of colorful Jaipur, and he juggles the film’s many subplots as best he can. The movie is based on the 2004 novel “These Foolish Things,” by Deborah Moggach, and I suspect the book expands in ways that a feature-length film just can’t.
Toward the end, the plot contrivances start to show and Madden resorts to some tired filmmaking tricks. After two hours of defying expectations, Madden buckles to the requirements of the mainstream romantic comedy.
But I suppose some concessions have to be made when your film has no sex scenes, no explosions and an ensemble cast in their 60s and 70s. All in all, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a terrific comic showcase for its A-list cast, and a delightful night at the movies.