Although reincarnation is never discussed in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, past lives exert a powerful presence in this lulling, happy-face story of retirement-age self-renewal, set in a shimmering, weltering, jewel-colored India. Except in this case, the recycling isn’t of souls but of the elements of box office success. So to get the most out of the manufactured Marigold experience — or at least to find something to say afterward other than ”Well, that was…cute” — it helps first to meditate on the karmic path that has led to this moment in time, and this blending of sanitized Slumdog Millionaire exoticism with the popular Enchanted April promise of reinvention abroad. Likewise, to best enjoy this warming tale of seven British pensioners who come to Jaipur for their retirement, it helps to watch the actors in a kind of memory trance that summons up past performances overlaid on the present. While admiring Judi Dench now as a stalwart widow in financial straits after her husband’s death, for instance, try summoning up the image of her as the stalwart widow Queen Victoria in Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown. While enjoying the delightful apoplexies of Maggie Smith as an acidic old bat afraid of anything foreign, think of the many great, scenery-chewing variations she has done in recent years since inhabiting the body of Professor Minerva McGonagall throughout the Harry Potter saga. The star may trot out a working woman’s accent here, but it’s impossible to tune out the chiming imperiousness of her Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey.
The Dames are joined by Brit vets Bill Nighy (Love Actually), Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey), Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom), Celia Imrie (Calendar Girls), and Ronald Pickup (Fortunes of War), each a character in search of a new lease on life and intrigued by the marketing come-on of the title hotel, with its offer of comfy amenities ”for the Elderly and Beautiful.” Of course, when they arrive (their dusty white Brit butts bruised by the indignities of Third World travel), the hotel is not exactly as advertised. Phones don’t work, not every room has its own door, that sort of thing. On the flip side, the place is run by Slumdog Millionaire’s young, winning Dev Patel, here playing an ambitious fellow named Sonny, so the energy of the place is good. This optimistic business go-getter loves a pretty girl (Tena Desae) who works in one of those outsourced-labor call centers that have invigorated the Indian economy and exasperated U.S. credit-card customers with questions about their accounts. The affinities between outsourced office laborers and outsourced retirees are pointed out as if by an exhaustively thorough tour guide.
To be sure, there’s something comfortable — and comforting — about all this. As directed by John Madden (reunited with Dench after Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown and Shakespeare in Love) from a screenplay by Ol Parker (Imagine Me and You) based on a novel by Deborah Moggach, the movie is as reliable as a tea bag. And with no more Harry Potters in the pipeline and a lull between seasons of Downton Abbey, it’s a pip to see these players be so…British. The loyal if unhappily married husband (tender-funny Nighy) and his perpetually dissatisfied wife (Wilton) face their marital crossroads; the mournful judge (Wilkinson) attends to a heartache from his past; the fading divorcée(Imrie) and the decaying swinger (Pickup) each address the sexuality of aging singletons. Smith gets to bite into some tasty lines of dialogue (“If I can’t pronounce it, I won’t eat it”) and trundle around in a wheelchair (her character has come to India for an economy-priced hip replacement). Everyone learns. Everyone hugs. The soundtrack favors jaunty sitar melodies. The cinematography shows off the overwhelming sensory stimulation of the place while stepping briskly around less-than-colorful images of real poverty, squalor, overcrowding, and despair.
As a brand extender (for the senior cast, for the director, and certainly for Patel, following the grand success of Slumdog), Marigold Hotel achieves what it sets out to do: Sell something safe and sweet, in a vivid foreign setting, to an underserved share of the moviegoing market. The questions we’re left to ponder are: What’s the karmic consequence of putting profit goals ahead of creative energy? What will the next reincarnation of this kind of movie look like? And who will Maggie Smith play? B-