A great comedy is a rare thing of beauty, to be savored like vintage Bordeaux. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, starring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith and Dev Patel, is not only a great comedy but one about and for grown ups. You don’t have to be over 50 to relish the humor and sad truths that lie beneath the humor, but it certainly helps. This is a film about aging and retirement, with a soupcon of young love thrown in. Not exactly a thigh slapper, you might think, but you would be wrong.
In the capable hands of English director John Madden (who recently gave us another impressive grown up film, The Debt, and in 1998, Shakespeare in Love), and with a delicious script by Ol Parker (based on the 2004 novel, These Foolish Things), it is one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years. I absolutely loved it and so did everyone else at the screening.
The English have a talent for comedy that is sophisticated, acerbic and wise. Unlike American comedies about aging—of the Walter Mattheau variety—that tend to be grouchy, gross and misogynistic, they give us their finest actors operating at the pinnacle of their talent. Maggie Smith’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. As Muriel, the racist and bitter ex-housekeeper with a head for numbers whose expensive hip replacement is “outsourced” to India, she delivers lines with her wonderfully croaky voice like a violinist playing a Stradivarius. When she says, simply, “I’m in hell,” as she does early in the film, I doubled over with laughter.
The film covers a full spectrum of older types—singles and couples—who cannot afford retirement in England: Judi Dench is Evelyn, a newly widowed housewife whose home must be sold to pay her husband’s debts; Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton (of Downton Abbey) are an unhappily married couple who unwisely invested in their daughter’s internet start up; the incomparable Tom Wilkinson is Graham, a high court judge who grew up in India and returns to complete some unfinished personal business; Ronald Pickup plays an aging ladies’ man, Norman, still trying to—yes—pick up younger women; and Celia Imrie energetically plays the much-married Madge who, like Norman, wants fun, adventure, sex and companionship.
For a variety of reasons and circumstances they are enticed to sign up for an affordable life of leisure and retirement in India at the “restored” Marigold Hotel. It turns out to be a wreck, but a charming wreck, partially owned and run by Sonny, brilliantly played by Dev Patel, who charmed us all in Slumdog Millionaire. In this film he again proves his comic talent. Sonny’s mother, who moves into the hotel and disapproves of the woman he loves, conspires with his brothers to knock down the unprofitable hotel Marigold rather than continue its renovation.
To tell you more would be to take away your enjoyment of the funny, touching, and sad twists and turns of the plot, which take place amidst a backdrop of the riotous colors and street life of India. By the way, for those who’ve always wanted to see India, but without the dirt and poverty, this film fits the bill: see Marigold and save thousands in travel. But the best reason to see it is to revel in the many pleasures of a great comedy beautifully acted, one that touches on the sorrows of life but does not dwell on them.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Directed by John Madden
Written by Ol Parker
Opening May 4, 2012