If superheroes aren't your bag, there's another star-powered ensemble movie opening this weekend that unites a group of screen legends and sends them off on a globe-trotting adventure. In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Shakespeare in Love director John Madden assembles some of the most popular and beloved veterans of British cinema -- among them Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson -- and puts them on a plane bound for Jaipur, India, where their new home, the titular retirement castle, awaits. And just like their costumed counterparts in The Avengers, this squad of heroes begins their mission with a lot of trepidation and mistrust before ultimately learning the value of friendship and the thrill of boldly venturing into unfamiliar territory.
It goes without saying, of course, that the big set-pieces in Marigold Hotel involve emotional arguments and dramatic revelations rather than effects-heavy brawls where guys in iron suits fly around dishing out punishment to alien invaders. But both movies are similar in that they are sturdily crafted, mostly enjoyable and entirely too-familiar examples of their respective genres. Just as you know exactly where The Avengers is going from the first frame, so too can you predict almost every story and character beat in Marigold Hotel. It's comfort food filmmaking, designed to satiate the appetite of its specific audience -- in this case, fans of tony BBC serials, frequent Elderhostel travelers and Downton Abbey devotees going through Dowager Countess withdrawal. And those viewers will almost certainly eat it up; everyone else will likely find it a pleasant trifle that goes down smoothly, but isn't completely nourishing.
Rather than push any of his actors outside of their comfort zones, Madden has cast the movie strictly to type, starting with Dench as the ostensible lead, Evelyn, a widower whose even-keeled exterior masks a deep well of private pain. Meanwhile, Wilkinson plays Graham, a stiff-upper-lip type with some personal drama of his own; Smith is Muriel, an irascible senior who continually says inappropriate and downright racist things and gets away them because she's Maggie Smith; and Nighy is Douglas, a gawky charmer who delivers every line in that understated Bill Nighy way. (Funnily enough, Nighy's onscreen wife is Penelope Wilton, whom he was also married to in Shaun of the Dead. It's a shame that Simon Pegg didn't make a cameo appearance as their grown son to complete the illusion that this film takes place in the same universe as that one.) Rounding out the English ensemble are Ronald Pickup as the perpetually horny senior Norman and Celia Imrie as man-hungry serial divorcée Madge. The Indian locals are represented primarily by the Marigold Hotel's youthful owner Sonny (Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel), who lures these retirees to his hotel under the pretense that it's a first-class, four-star place to spend their golden years. While the helpful staff is certainly first-class, the place itself is in a state of neglect and disrepair, a fact that functions as a convenient and all-too-obvious metaphor for the state of the new residents' lives. So as Sonny tries to transform the hotel into a destination that lives up to its name, Evelyn et al. set about pursuing their own personal fix-it-up projects with dramatic results.
If you're looking for an accurate, up-to-the-minute depiction of contemporary India, Marigold Hotel is most definitely not that movie. Although we catch occasional glimpses of the modern world -- call centers, high-rise apartment buildings, name-brand stores -- in general the movie has a distinctly last-days-of-the-Empire tone that's driven home by a bit of voiceover narration by Dench in which she describes feeling as though she's living in the Raj. And while that frame of reference makes sense considering who the movie's chief characters are, it's a shame that Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker don't try harder to make India into more than just an exotic backdrop against which these men and women wrestle with their first-world problems. What keep the film from drowning in cutesy humor and drippy sentiment are the performances of the ace cast, who play every scene with compelling sincerity. (Wilkinson has the movie's most genuinely moving moment, where he reveals precisely why he's made the journey to India.) They may not be able to fire laser blasts or take out five alien invaders with one mighty blow, but this collection of big-screen heroes are gifted with a mighty super power of their own: the one called "acting."
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