Seven British seniors set out on a luxurious vacation in India that will change their lives forever. It’s not exactly “The Avengers,” but that’s precisely what sets the proudly mature-skewing “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” apart as Hollywood embarks on its annual blockbuster season.
It’s a shame then that a movie featuring the combined talents of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson doesn’t amount to much more than a cutesy feel-good mix of comedy, drama and romance intent on spoon-feeding its audience inspiration and uplift.
There’s certainly nothing in the roles to challenge the performers: a widow (Dench) seeking to find some independence and reclaim her identity in the Internet age, an acid-tongued racist (Smith) and former housekeeper in need of a hip replacement, a bickering married couple (Nighy and Penelope Wilton) suffering financial setbacks as they reach their golden years, a successful judge (Wilkinson) trying to reclaim his youth and two hot to trot senior singles (Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup) hoping to score abroad.
They’re in for more than just culture shock when they arrive at the “luxury resort” of the title: it’s actually a run down hotel managed by the well-intentioned by inexperienced Sonny Kapoor. Sonny is played by Dev Patel who serves the dual purpose of reminding the audience of “Slumdog Millionaire” and providing a main character under the age of 60. He also has a beautiful love interest (newcomer Tena Desae) and a domineering traditionalist mother (Lillete Dubey) who conveniently fulfill the respective roles of Exotic Foreigner and Cultural Fundamentalist.
Everyone in “Marigold Hotel” plays a character type with a preordained destination, and the film’s only surprises spring from the way not every couple is paired up exactly as you might expect at the start. Director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Debt”) and screenwriter Ol Parker (“Imagine Me and You”) have crafted a product designed to reassure its target audience that life doesn’t end at retirement and all your dreams can come true if you simply open yourself up to the opportunity. Those would be fine messages if only the film found some fresh or interesting way to deliver them.
Instead “Marigold Hotel” is another in a long line of middlebrow British comedies that assumes we’ll forgive a shallow, hollow script because the actors delivering it are so skilled. That only works to a point. While it’s hard to deny the pleasures of seeing Dench in a leading role, Smith in prime haughty form and Nighy and Wilkinson as men rediscovering feelings they thought they’d lost, it’s also a shame that the roles aren’t richer, more complex and worthy of what each performer brings to the table. At least they’re all permitted to be more relaxed than Wilton -- taking one for the team in a hopelessly neurotic and overbearing turn as Nighy’s demanding wife.
Aside from Wilton, “Marigold Hotel” doesn’t really squander its talent so much as fail to showcase it properly. A cast like this deserves more. Or maybe it doesn’t even matter. “Marigold Hotel” is currently the third highest grossing film of 2012 in the U.K. (behind only “The Hunger Games” and Daniel Radcliffe’s “The Woman in Black,” though “The Avengers” will also surpass it any minute now), and has already proven itself as a success.
If we can learn anything from the “surprising” commercial appeal of movies like “Marigold Hotel,” “It’s Complicated,” “Mamma Mia!” and their ilk it’s that moviegoers of a certain age are eager to see themselves reflected on screen, no matter how banal that reflection looks.
"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" opens in limited release May 4