There just isn’t much life in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (opening in area theaters Friday), even though there should be plenty: It’s set amid the perpetual traffic and overpopulated bustle of modern India.
This prestige dramedy, directed by “Shakespeare in Love” Oscar nominee John Madden and based on a novel by Deborah Moggach, follows the lives of seven British retirees who are “outsourced” to a deceptively extravagant hotel in Jaipur. Most of the movie is set in a penurious district in the large Indian metropolis, but viewers will leave the movie with only the flimsiest concept of India, and the paradox of urban squalor and emerging power it contains. The city instead takes a whitewashed backseat to the comparably comfortable problems of upper-middle-class Caucasians; like other “exotic” Western exports like “The Constant Gardener” and “The Last King of Scotland,” its priorities are all off.
Not that this empty audience pleaser could be expected to present life in a manner befitting its milieu. Its screenplay is a compendium of lazy jokes and wilted dramatic contrivances. Its pandering sentiments come easier than second-grade math to a physics prodigy, and sappy platitudes are piled on like molasses.
Just about every character is a mothballed archetype: There’s a racist codger who travels to India for a rapid hip replacement (Maggie Smith); a married couple who have obviously fallen out of love with another (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton); a circuit court judge eschewing his eminence for a snap decision to retire to India (Tom Wilkinson); a serial marrier hoping to nab a wealthy maharaja (Celia Imrie); and an aging roué trying to maintain his virility (Ronald Pickup).
There’s also a widowed, technological Luddite hoping to start a blog about her life in India (Judi Dench), the only character who is given three dimensions. Then again, maybe it’s just that Dench’s acting is so strong that she transcends the material better than her veteran costars.
In fact, had the movie simply focused on Dench’s journey toward a second life, this could have been a compelling picture. Her scenes have the ring of truth, the best of which shows her teaching an anxious call-center employee (you can’t have a Hollywood depiction of India without call centers, apparently) how not to be a robot.
But the rest of the action is bogged down in proper, bloodless English politeness. Even the film’s one death scene is appropriate and painless, a classy passing to the other side whose forecasted inevitability results in shrugs of indifference. Everybody knows exactly what to say and when to say it; immediacy and spontaneity are the farthest things from this well-oiled (to a fault) production. Gee, do you think the cranky old bigot will have a complete 180-degree turnaround by the end of the picture? Far be it from me to spoil the surprise.