Never underestimate the power of a strong ensemble movie. It can be extremely difficult to pull off; for every “Traffic” there is a “Town & Country.” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a successful comedy-drama with eight performers at the top of their game.
The scenes before the opening credits introduce seven elderly Brits, who each have personal reasons for wanting to go on an extended vacation at an apparently luxurious hotel. Once in India, the men and women figure out the place that seemed so wonderful in the ads was a ploy to cover up the fact it is both in poor shape as well as suffering from economic problems, which the extremely upbeat hotel manager (Dev Patel) hopes to fix. Though most of the cast learns to adapt to the strange environment, all of them try to figure out what to do in this new stage of life.
As the picture opens, some of the initial meetings with the main characters could have been stronger. The early racist dialogue of Muriel (Maggie Smith), is played for broad laughs, which is unintentionally cringe-inducing. Also, the first time the hilarious Norman (Ronald Pickup) is on screen, the jokes are a little too obvious.
However, minutes later, a scene at the airport hooks the audience into the simultaneous adventures. All the travelers, including Evelyn (Judi Dench), Douglas (Bill Nighy), Madge (Celia Imrie) and Graham (Tom Wilkinson) sit next to each other while waiting for their flight. Despite the fact these are notable film icons and the flaws of the opening, the actors appear to be authentic and humorously idiosyncratic individuals — it works.
There is not enough space in a 500-word article to talk about all of the amazing performances. Suffice it to say, each and every role is terrifically played by the thespians.
In a bizarre twist for fans of “Shaun of the Dead,” Shaun’s mother (Penelope Wilton) and stepdad (Nighy) seem to have switched roles in this film. Nighy is now a kindhearted man instead of an emotionally cold one and Wilton is a strict wife who does not support her husband, as opposed to being a very loving woman. They make a funny and dramatic team as their polar-opposite personalities are realistically explored.
Dench and Wilkinson are just as terrific as they contribute to some of the more memorably moving moments of the journey in India. They are both dealing with heartfelt losses and neither performer misses a beat in expressing their deep emotions.
Ol Parker’s script is consistently clever, charming and insightful. He never has to compromise tone, because Parker manages to keep things true to the real world, where laughs and sadness coexist.
Along with John Madden’s direction, which is both relatable and whimsical, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” wants to be feel-good entertainment while also remaining an intelligent reflection of reality. On those terms, it is a big success.