By the end of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," moviegoers may feel as if they've just completed something akin to an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet. Much like the first try of a spicy Indian curry, you'll wonder if you've made the right choice. By the end, however, you'll be gloriously satisfied and glad you took your time and savored every bite.
The story of seven British retirees who wind up in India on the promise of a deluxe retirement community starts off at a slow pace, picking up steam as it makes its way from England to India and eventually embarks on its merry journey.
The story is predictable enough. After arriving in India, the hotel is not what was shown in the photographs on the website. (Has this ever happened to you?) The Brits are aghast to discover that what they've been duped into is merely the dream of a young entrepreneur, Sonny Kapoor (Dev "Slumdog Millionaire" Patel). Pigeons are camped out in dusty rooms, toilets don't work, and rooms don't have doors. Yet, by the final unspooling of the film, each individual, from the big players at the center of the story to the minor character of a mute housekeeper, has discovered something valuable about their past, present and their future, realizing that their upstart host's desires aren't much different from their own. "In India, we have a saying - everything will be all right in the end," Kapoor advises each time one of his residents voices discontent with the lodging. "So if it is not all right, it is not yet the end."
John Madden, who directed the Best Picture winner "Shakespeare in Love" and the recent thriller, "The Debt," assembled some of the most talented and recognizable British performers such as Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, to have a jolly good time on photographic rich jaunts through Rajasthan, which the filmmakers call "one of the most romantic of India's states." Not only are the characters portrayed in the story as fish-out-of-water, but there's a genuine feeling throughout the film that the actors, too, aren't in their comfort zone, which adds to the appeal.
The stand outs are the three most decorated actors. Oscar winner Dench plays the newly widowed, Evelyn, who discovers her husband has left her financially ruined. Looking to make a fresh start, she decides to create her own adventure. While the story does focus on each individual's story, it is Evelyn who is "Marigold's" balance and center, and Dench, looking bright in breezy linen shirts and pants against the colorful Indian backdrop, lights up the screen. Wilkinson plays Graham, a recently retired civil servant who has his own desires for wanting to live out his retirement at the Marigold Hotel. As the genteel judge searching for his past, he's another reason "Marigold" blooms.
Smith's character is probably the least likeable. The former live in housekeeper is a racist, crotchety wheel-chair bound senior citizen who has been sent to India because she requires a hip replacement. If you believe this woman would set foot in India whether she needed a new hip or not, I have an exotic hotel that I can sell you in India. Seasoned actress Smith pulls it off, giving the character needed depth. Especially priceless and showing Smith's true acting chops is a change-of-heart scene where she partakes in an authentic meal in a traditional Indian home.
Unfortunately, the weakest link in the film is Patel as the perpetually sunny Sonny, playing the hotelier as a caricature and not showing the same knack for believability that he did in "Millionaire." However, his Indian co-stars, the beautiful Lillete Dubey as Sonny's mother, and equally stunning newcomer Tena Desae, as Sunaina, Sonny's girlfriend, are a pure delight.
"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" goes up against superheroes this Mother's Day weekend in its wide opening (it has been playing in limited markets), but "Marigold" features superheroes of a different kind. Given a choice to take Mom to a hulk-sized mega picture or a travelogue through golden-year adventures, "Marigold" is definitely a better bed of roses.