Most movies start with a concept, but rarely from a concept that could be found in real life. Yet The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is such a movie: Adapted from These Foolish Things, a novel that starts from the idea that the elderly can be outsourced just like jobs, the film sends several aging, and already-aged, Brits to the country still under the influence of the Empire—India—for cheap living expenses, warm weather, and readily available service labor. Adapted by Ol Parker, it does so with mixed success, though surprisingly enough considering the setup, the plot is absorbingly unpredictable. And that the downwardly mobile British ex-pats are played by the most formidable and enjoyable cross-culture thespians around (from the Royal Shakespeare Company to mega-franchises Harry Potter, Underworld, James Bond, and Downton Abbey) goes a long way, as does the direction by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), who at his best is an inspired actors’ director.
Madden isn’t quite at his best here, but close enough. All the film needed to be another delightfully eccentric, bittersweet Brit comedy is more of the acerbic humor that accompanies the retirees to India, but then evaporates once they settle into the hotel. For example, when Madge (Celia Imrie), tosses off that she’s relocating in the hopes of meeting a maharaja, her annoyed son-in-law asks her, “How many husbands have you had?” To which Madge blithely replies, “Counting my own?” Later, however, she’ll realize that she’s single not by choice (not her own choice, anyway).
Jean and Doug (Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy) fall for the overly enthusiastic brochure from the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (“for the elderly and beautiful”), because after 30 years as civil servants, they can’t afford to retire in Britain. For Muriel (Maggie Smith), it’s an opportunity to have major surgery—a hip replacement—and a long convalescence at an affordable health-care cost, while recently widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench) was impoverished by her husband’s debts. Also leaving home for the anticipated relaxation of the grand hotel is Norman (Ronald Pickup), a deteriorating letch, and Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a barrister who is suddenly overwhelmed by nostalgia for the land of his youth.
The run-down but still exotic hotel is mismanaged by Sonny (Def Patel), a buoyant optimist, who is sincere when he explains to a wary investor that he is going to make the hotel so enchanting the guests will refuse to die. As the first round of guests adjust to the lack of amenities, and the noise, crowds, filth, and startling beauty of their new surroundings, as well as their varying degrees of aging, their life stories emerge—and converge. The film could’ve had more substance—it detours into a shallow comedic triangle involving Sonny, his gorgeous girlfriend, and his traditional mother (when we’d rather be with Nighy’s Doug, who discovers his long-suppressed adventurous side), but even so, these plucky old gits are well worth getting to know.