The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and  Bill Nighy
Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench), Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson), Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy) and four other English expatriates adjust to the inconveniences of an Indian hotel © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

This is the sort of mildly amusing mush one imagines a condescending 20-something development exec thinking will appeal to undiscriminating senior citizens. Instead, it’s as unlikely to interest the elderly as it is to intrigue the unseasoned.

That’s a shame, because the underlying idea isn’t bad, and the more mature members of the cast do the best they can. But what could have been a comically pointed look at the troubling economics of aging spoons on too much saccharine and silliness for that medicine to go down.

Four singles and one couple emigrate from England to spend their sunset years in India. That’s a financial hardship decision for most, whose meager savings or pensions will go farther in the subcontinent. All except mismatched husband and wife Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) are strangers until their flight touches down. Crotchety racist Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), whose hip surgery could be scheduled sooner and cheaper in India than in Blighty, only plans a temporary stay.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - Tena Desae and Dev Patel
Sunaina (Tena Desae) and hotel manager Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) hope love conquers all © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

The worst off of the expatriates should be 70-something Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench), who inherited nothing but debt from her husband and is the only one to seek employment. Even she doesn’t seem particularly concerned about from whence her next meal will come, however. In fact, no one seems to have meaningful money worries after they unload their suitcases, which contradicts the movie’s premise. Even if Jaipur is cheaper than Jolly Old England, a little anxiety about the future still should be in order.

All seven oldsters are the first residents of a fixer-upper establishment colorfully known as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Eldery & Beautiful. Its cartoonishly eager-to-please young manager Sonny Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire‘s Dev Patel) is a simple-minded Indian stereotype whose servile over-enthusiasm borders on the offensive. The all-business brother of his Bollywood beautiful girlfriend Sunaina (Tena Desae) wants to keep the lovers apart, as does Sonny’s arranged-marriage demanding mother. This irksome subplot and all four of those farcical characters should have been cut.

The other members of the senior seven include former British high court Judge Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson), who hopes to reunite with an unlikely long-ago love. Dirty old man Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) — decidedly not the real-life author and Albert Schweitzer Prize recipient — is the movie’s token perpetually horny Viagra-joke cypher. Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) hopes to bag a wealthy husband by joining an expensive country club, raising again the “thriftiness, lack of” problem mentioned above.

Aside from Dench’s carry-on determined Evelyn, the characters with the most to do are the unhappily married Ainslies. Nighy is good at conveying the gamely optimistic Douglas’ quiet exasperation with Wilton’s Jean, who is resentfully unwilling to so much as leave their hotel courtyard. As the bigoted Muriel, Smith handles a predictably sappy transition from irritated to enlightened about as well as could be expected.

John Madden, who directed 1998 Best Picture Shakespeare in Love and whose last movie was 2011’s excellent The Debt, can’t overcome the limitations of the screenplay by Ol Parker (based on the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach). The movie plays like the pilot for a mostly bland sitcom occasionally spiced up with a convenient death, or the antics of insultingly silly locals.

[Rating: 2 stars]

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is released in cinemas on Friday May 4, 2012. UK theatrical release was on February 24, 2012. Australia release was March 22, 2012.

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.