Nothing happens in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” that you don’t expect — but there are plenty of charms in watching a cast of veteran British actors going through their paces in a story of life’s second acts.
This adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s novel introduces us to several English characters facing the prospect of retirement. Evelyn (Judi Dench) is a widow whose husband’s debts force her to sell the home they shared for 40 years. Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is a judge who decides to chuck it all. Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) are discovering just how far his civil-service pension will go. Madge (Celia Imrie) seeks a rich husband, and Norman (Ronald Pickup) is eternally in search of new sexual conquests. And then there’s Muriel (Maggie Smith), a racist curmudgeon in need of a hip replacement.
All of them soon realize their most affordable retirement option is in Jaipur, India. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful, however, is not the paradise the website photos have them believe. The confident young owner-manager of the hotel, Sonny Kapoor (“Slumdog Millionaire” star Dev Patel), talks fast to reassure his new clients, employing old Indian philosophy: “Everything will be all right in the end. If everything is not all right, it is not the end.”
Each of the new arrivals, rejecting the notion that their lives are over, reacts differently to the bustle of India. Evelyn, for one, lands herself a job teaching call-center workers how to talk like human beings. Graham, forced to hide his homosexuality for decades, searches for a lost love he knew as a teen. Muriel discovers an affinity for the “untouchable” caste members who tend to the hotel as her attitudes about brown-skinned people soften. And so on.
Meanwhile, Sonny must contend with his modern girlfriend, Sunaina (Tena Desae), and his disapproving mother (Lillete Dubey).
Everything in Ol Parker’s screenplay plays out in gently predictable fashion. It’s up to the delightful cast, and to the light touch of director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), to bring life and warmth. There are great moments for all the principals, with particularly good turns by Dench, Wilkinson and the pairing of Nighy and Wilton (who played a married couple previously in “Shaun of the Dead”). The movie is also a delightful travelogue, capturing all the color and movement of modern India in a way that makes retiring there — or, at least, spending a couple hours there — seem quite appealing.
-- Sean P. Means