The line outside the Wilma stretched nearly an entire block down a rainy Higgins Avenue Sunday evening, and the absence of cigarette smoke and flannel made it clear that something out of the ordinary was unfolding: The average age of this posse looked to be, oh, 58ish. A surprise Garrison Keillor show, perhaps? I had no idea, and didn't think much of it as I attempted to cut the entire line and buy tickets for the film, only to be informednicely, of coursethat everyone in line was waiting for that same film.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is indeed aimed at this very demographic, and it's easy to make fun of, especially since the cast is predominately British and stars not one but two cast members from "Downton Abbey." But let's not forget that BBC's "Downton Abbey" is amazing, and one of the actresses involved here is Maggie Smith, who you know better as the Dowager Countess of Grantham.
Combine Smith with a cast that between them has 14 Oscar nominations and three wins, add in the charismatic star of Slumdog Millionaire and what you've got is a fun film with surprisingly little pretension and enough charm to overcome a predictable ending. It's also essentially a two-hour advertisement for India's tourism department, which in this case is a good thing.
Smith plays Muriel Donnelly, one of seven British seniors who have traveled from London to Jaipur, India, lured by the promise of an exotic, luxurious and affordable new retirement community. What they discover is not exactly the same as promised in the brochure. Sonny (Dev Patel), the hotel's eager manager, admits he may have optimistically Photoshopped some of the promotional materials. But TBEMH, as we'll call it, is far from a slum. While it lacks some amenities like working telephones and the occasional room door, the centuries-old building nestled into a beautiful compound has character. And for a few of the guests like Evelyn (Judi Dench), a recent widower, and Douglas (Bill Nighy)who has arrived with his wife after the couple invested their retirement savings in their daughter's failed internet businessIndia offers a delightful respite full of new people and places.
The film is essentially a series of vignettes that follow the acclimation of our seven pensioners into their new environs. There are a few misses, particularly the storyline involving Madge (Celia Imrie), a single rich lady on the hunt for a new rich husband, and Norman (Ronald Pickup), whose goal in life appears to be proving that he can still get it done in the sack at this advancing age. Cue the predictable geriatric sex jokes.
But there is a depth to other stories in TBEMH that are both moving and funny. The always enjoyable Tom Wilkinson plays Graham, a retired British judge who grew up in India and has returned mainly in search of the man he loved. He is charming as he disappoints female suitors with the news he is gaythough "more in theory than in practice these days," he admitsand the search for his former lover is painful and moving.
Nighy is the best of the bunch here, fully embracing an unplanned life detour with zest and wit, and doing so with a wife (Penelope Wilton, the other actor you'll recognize from "Downton Abbey") who is kicking and screaming the entire way. Douglas is too nice and too loyal to see the marriage for what it is, and the relationship sets up a fascinating lesson regarding the dos and don'ts of aging gracefully.
Omnipresent throughout is the overeager Sonny. We last saw Patel not cheating his way to victory on a game show in Slumdog Millionaire, and here he is trying hard to simultaneously please his guests, his mother and his girlfriend Sunaina (Tena Desae). His story offers us an important glimpse outside the confines of TBEMH into a modern India that is often still at odds with tradition, as evidenced time and again by Sonny's overprotective and overbearing mother.
Evelyn calls her new home city a "riot of noise and color," and director John Madden's finest accomplishment here is blending that apt description with the seniors who now inhabit this foreign environment. What could have turned into an unintended parody instead finds its way with surprising ease and heart. You'll enjoy it as much as your parents will.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel continues at the Wilma Theatre.