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After his 2009 film Killshot made just $18,000 domestically, and his taut thriller The Debt suffered a long delay before its quiet Labor Day release last year, Shakespeare in Love director John Madden seemed to be a long way from his early 90s success. But he's back in the spotlight now with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, having already totaled $66 million in international release and headed to American theaters this week, with promises of tony old British actors, vibrant Indian locations, and the kind of light comedy that lets Judi Dench swan about in bright caftans and swingy scarves.
The movie provides all of those things in spades, along with a surprising tenderness about aging and a few delicately handled romances that allow the performers to open up with remarkable ease. WIth a cast including Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, none of these actors lack for work exactly, but all are much more likely to play authoritative, austere presences as backup to the younger stars than to take the spotlight as they do here. The generous script and probably too-generous running time (nearly two hours) leave plenty of room for every character and storyline to develop, and though the stakes are fairly low in Marigold Hotel, it's eager to charm and has just enough talent to accomplish that.
We meet all of our leads in a breezy prologue, meeting all these British folks of a certain age with their various reasons to leave town-- the bored barrister (Wilkinson), the adrift widow (Dench), the flat-broke couple (Nighy and Penelope Wilton), the cranky cuss in need of a cheap hip replacement (Smith), and two freer spirits (Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup) who are mostly bored with the British dating scene and itching for a change. They've been lured to Jaipur, India by a glossy brochure for the "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful" but arrive to find a barely-functional ruin of a hotel run by Sonny (Dev Patel), a scatterbrained but sweet kid who's more about big ideas than actual business savvy.
Wilton's Jean is overwhelmed by the mayhem of Jaipur, which puts a wrench in her marriage, but the others slowly thrive-- Dench takes a job training call center reps in British customs, Imrie and Pickup start helping each other seek out romantic conquests, Smith recovers from surgery and befriends a servant, and Wilkinson goes on a hunt for a childhood friend who's the source of a lot of guilt about the past. As in any story about this many characters, the narratives float in and out of focus, and Wilton's story at least feels badly served by the film-- she makes a failed attempt at an affair and constantly belittles her husband, all before we've come to know her at all. But the broad narrative also allows some surprising threads to emerge, like the slow-burn attraction between Dench or Nighy, or Sonny's attempts to make his mother (Lillete Dubey) accept both his business dreams and his girlfriend (Tena Desae).
The entire film occasionally suffers from being just a little too much-- too much melodrama in the third act, too much voiceover from Dench as she writes platitudes in her journal, and too much focus on visual metaphors for the retirees and their transformation, like a lingering shot of an egret flying into the sky. But Madden is also skilled with telling big ensemble stories, and Marigold Hotel may feel fluffy and breezy until you suddenly realize you're genuinely invested in these characters and their second lease on life. Madden and his gifted cast take this glossy, formulaic Indian vacation and invest it with heart and honesty-- not greatness, exactly, but enough goodness to satisfy.