May is the time for Hollywood to say, “Smash, here’s your big fucking summer entertainment, America!” Exhibit A: Marvel’s The Avengers, which notably uses the word “smash.”
For anyone suffering from superhero fatigue, the season’s first respite is director John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It’s charming. It’s safe. It’s a homogenized glop. Given its pedigree, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel should be better, but at least it’s not filled with gunfire.---
The thin plot involves a group of English retirees heading to India to stay at the titular and dilapidated Marigold Hotel, run by an enthusiastic and mildly cliché young man named Sonny Kapoor, played charmingly by Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel. The fogies don’t want to live in England anymore, because they’re broke, because they want independence from meddling family and because they’re searching for something.
Actually, they're all searching for something, be it love, sex, a past relationship, independence or a new hip (seriously). And thankfully, the movie is quite charming. That charm is an asset because the story is warmed over and the "Oh-aren't-the-Indians-cute" gags get older than the cast, and quickly.
But—and this is a big but—there is something just plain nice about a movie that takes its time and meanders and lets its characters discover themselves, which all the characters in the movie eventually do. And with a screen filled with pros like Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson, it doesn't really matter that they're not doing anything terribly interesting. It's just fun to watch them do it.
Wilkinson in particular is wonderful as a retired judge, raised in India and searching for his first love. His performance shifts amiably among melancholy, optimism and regret. Unfortunately, he leaves the picture all too soon, but we have Nighy and Dench to fill the gap he leaves.
Dench, doing the buttoned-up thing she does so well, gets a job at a call center. Her job is to teach the Indian staff how to relate to English people on the other end of the phone. If it seems mildly racist that a white person is instructing Indians on how to do their jobs, maybe it is.
But that's nothing compared to Smith's character, who's an overt racist. She sees the error of her ways after she gets a new hip and realizes the untouchable young woman caring for her isn't so different from herself. That she also ends up teaching Indians how to do their jobs seems...not quite right.
Anyway. Nighy has some good moments as a put-upon husband. He and his wife (Penelope Wilton) are on a down slope in their union; she hates literally everything in India and he wants to make the best of their circumstances.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. That doesn’t make it much different from, say, The Avengers. It just depends on whether you like your escapism loud and brash or quiet and reserved.