Outsourcing gets a new twist in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a likable if market-driven ensemble comedy about a pack of cash-poor British elders who ship out for India, hoping for one last stab at self-renewal in a supposedly glam hotel.
The lonely seniors have two things in common: the usual big-screen bucket-list array of wishes for love, sex, closure and adventure — or at a minimum, retirement without total penury — and the fact that they're all played by the cream of today's British acting talent, albeit mostly operating below full steam.
Beyond that, the members of this disappointed crew, stranded in the decrepit ruins of a formerly grand mansion, fall into one of two categories you've met many a time before: Englishmen abroad (rarely a pretty sight) and affirmative life-lovers who are up for anything. (No prizes whatsoever for guessing where Maggie Smith, our reigning queen of Grumpy and Surly, lands.) Resplendent in a pungent lower-middle class twang and bags of belligerent attitude, Smith plays Muriel, a former nanny whose bitterness at having been thrown on the trash heap by her former employers has brought out the robust xenophobe in her.
She's come to a place where the aged are cherished rather than consigned to oblivion, luckily — but Muriel has come to India unwillingly, and she has no faith in the long-suffering Indian surgeons who capably replace her hip at bargain rates, or in the Untouchable domestic who shows her a kindness her own family has never done.
Matching Smith kvetch for kvetch is the great Penelope Wilton as a snooty, luxury-loving matron who, despite the enormous advantage of being married to Bill Nighy, refuses to leave the hotel for fear of contamination by the great unwashed of Jaipur.
When Smith and Wilton (who faced off deliciously in the first two seasons of Downton Abbey) are doing their testy old bird thing, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is frisky, angry, irreverent and fun. Otherwise, it's gentle, sweet, inspiring and a bit flabby, with a terrific cast reduced to beige shades of nice. (Who can watch Nighy playing a downtrodden husband without yearning for a cathartic burst of the mad aging rocker he aced in Love, Actually?)
Tom Wilkinson is reliable as ever as Graham, a retired judge who's come to India on impulse to seek out a long-lost love. And other old faithfuls include a much-married grandmother (Celia Imrie) of exceedingly high libido, and a game old gent (Ronald Pickup) trying to pretend he's still Don Juan, if indeed he ever was.
Judi Dench, a dame with an edge if ever there was one, bears up valiantly as Evelyn, a recently widowed homemaker, who, left penniless by her beloved late husband, finds herself a job in Jaipur. This being movie-India, a call center shows up on cue, only here the customer-service representatives are urgently in need of social-skills training from Evelyn, just as the boys playing cricket in the street eagerly lap up batting tips from Graham.
In return, India — chiefly represented by the eternally optimistic young hotel manager played by Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel — offers these twitchy, goal-oriented Brits light, color, terrible traffic and serene injunctions about living in the present. Old colonial habits die hard, at least in a filmic vision of India that's woefully behind the curve of a country whose lively progress on many fronts far outstrips that of its former ruler.
Adapted by Ol Parker from a popular — and, by all accounts, more tough-minded and antic — novel by Deborah Moggach, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is smoothly directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love). It's a sweet-tempered folly in which all's well that ends well. Heaven knows its target audience is an underserved market, and perhaps a little wish fulfillment is in order at a time when many seniors face the dissipation of their life savings and a lot of media chat about palliative care. Me, I'm with the angry grannies.