The MTV Cribs peeps are probably not clamoring to see this tale of British retirees seeking a retirement haven in India. But screw them if they don’t give a damn about watching Brit acting royalty nailing every nuance in this comedy laced with genuine emotion. Adapted by Ol Parker from a novel by Deborah Moggach, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel begins by lining up its cast of quirky characters. There’s widowed, financially strapped Evelyn (Judi Dench), bigoted Muriel (Maggie Smith), retired judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson), randy bachelor Norman (Ronald Pickup), senior femme fatale Madge (Celia Imrie), and bickering marrieds Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton). With a lesser cast, this would be a lineup of TV-movie clichés. But this is a cast that never makes a false move even when the script settles for formula.
Then there is India itself, which exerts a constant allure. The freshly refurbished Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in Jaipur is run by Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire), whose cockeyed optimism can’t disguise the hotel’s many failings and the hurt feelings of seniors whose harried families have outsourced them. Sonny has a sexy young girlfriend (Tena Desae), mostly because the movie thinks it needs one. It doesn’t.
As the hotel residents adjust (or don’t) to their exotic surroundings, the film gathers an appealingly buoyant spirit. John Madden, who directed Dench to an Oscar in Shakespeare in Love, shows a sure hand with all his actors. Dench is a resilient marvel. And watching Downton Abbey co-stars Smith and Wilton mix it up is a treat. Wilkinson finds humor and heartbreak in the gay judge. So it’s a shame that in the end Madden can’t keep the tear-jerking from drowning this delicate cinematic flower. The book knew how to hang tough. The movie, not so much.