Last weekend, America's movie theaters were rightly dominated by The Avengers, which Hulk-smashed box office records and will surely continue its domination this weekend. But if you're an adult over a certain age, or maybe want to find something to take mom or grandma to for Mother's Day other than a two-and-a-half hour action movie (albeit an excellent one), the good folks at Fox Searchlight have what you're looking for with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, an often poignant comedy about a group of British senior citizens who travel to India, lured by the dream of spending their golden years at a lavish resort in an exotic country with a favorable exchange rate, only to find that the most important trip for them to take is leaving their comfort zones. Watch the trailer for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel below.
The ensemble cast sounds like the faculty of a top-ranked British acting academy. Judi Dench plays the newly widowed Evelyn, who needs to cut her expenses and get her first job after her husband's death reveals decades of fiscal irresponsibility. Tom Wilkinson plays Graham, a high court judge who grew up in India and decides to return to find a lost love. Maggie Smith is Muriel, a closed-minded, openly racist former housekeeper who only wants to be in India as long as it takes to get a discounted hip surgery. Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton are Douglas and Jean, a dissatisfied couple who realize that their pensions won't provide them with the retirement they'd envisioned, and Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie play Norman and Madge, two singles hoping that India will provide one last chance at love.
The group arrives in Jaipur, but instead of the palatial resort seen in the brochures and website, they find the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to be a crumbling, dusty mess managed by the overambitious but eager-to-please Sonny (Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel), a young go-getter whose desire to start a business based on the concept of outsourcing retirement and rehabilitate the hotel in accordance with his departed father's dreams seems beyond his ability to do either.
India has long held a special place in the hearts of the West, first as the source of valuable and exotic exports like spices and silk, and more recently as a place of spiritual purity and renewal for new age yoga tourists. So it seems the greatest risk of a movie like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel would be the one-dimensional fetishizing of the country, where India is held up as a magical bazaar whose inhabitants, with their spirituality and simple lives, possess profound and timeless wisdom that heals the souls of jaded, lost westerners.
Thankfully, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel doesn't do that, and Sonny's one piece of wisdom -- that everything will be all right in the end, so if it's not all right, it is not yet the end -- seems more of an affirmation for himself than his guests. While the film doesn't do justice to the poverty, pollution, inequality, and unsanitary conditions that make India such a difficult destination for inexperienced and squeamish travelers, it rightly paints India as a place of contrasts undergoing rapid changes.
This is best exemplified through Sonny's relationship with his girlfriend Sunaina (Tena Desae), who works in a call center where Evelyn gets her first job coaching operators on how to better deal with elderly overseas customers. Sunaina is a product of modern India, which doesn't sit well with Sonny's conservative mother (Lillete Dubey) whose disapproval of Sunaina is more a critique of India's shifting culture than Sunaina's personal attributes.
But what's nice is that Sonny is given as much screen time as his British guests, instead of just being relegated to the kinds of grinning locals and gurus found in the Eat, Pray, Love variety of self-discovery travel porn. It's refreshing to see a smart, witty, often moving film that addresses the challenge of making a dignified transition into one's twilight years, where the answer isn't found in the ancient wisdom of a foreign land, but through our ability to overcome our fears, reconcile our pasts, and start our lives anew, no matter how old we are.
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