Every year, there is a movie that becomes an unexpected hit because it finds an audience among people the Hollywood studios resolutely ignore: the over-50 crowd. Last year, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris struck a chord loud enough among those who still dream of arrondisement-hopping with Gertrude Stein to earn $149 million worldwide. In 2010, regular guys with AARP cards got to compare notes on retirement with CIA assassins Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren in Red ($199 million).
The undisputed queen of the oldies is Meryl Streep (born in 1949), who cooked French cuisine in a fat suit in 2009’s Julie & Julia ($130 million) and sang 1970s pop anthems in Mamma Mia! the year before ($610 million). And, of course, there was the grandmother of them all, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a $5 million groaner that came out of nowhere in 2002 to earn $241 million in the United States alone without ever spending a day at the top of the box office charts.
The latest sensation for us geezers and soon-to-be-geezers (me, 51 years old) is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, about a retirement community for Britons in the Indian city of Jaipur. The city is a riot of noise and dust and ill-paved streets, and the home turns out to be a fantasy notion of a young dreamer named Sonny (Dev Patel, the star of Slumdog Millionaire), whose late father ran the titular hotel into the ground.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel looks good and is well-told by director John Madden, who has been floundering since his 1998 triumph Shakespeare in Love. Marigold Hotel is based on a fine and sharp 2004 novel called These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, which I commend to you highly. Ultimately, though, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is never less than diverting; it is neither all that fine nor all that sharp. It is a nice picture that proves to have as much spice as would a curry served up to folk sporting mouse-ear millinery were they gamely to sup inside an Indian restaurant at Epcot.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a movie about old people in which death and illness play a glancing role at most, and a portrait of emotional and physical dislocation in which nothing cuts too deeply. When convenient for plot purposes, a decades-long relationship simply comes to an end while characters are caught in a traffic jam; when convenient for tearjerking purposes, an act of teenage betrayal that has haunted a man for 50 years is forgiven with a hug. And when we need a funeral for travelogue purposes, that too is supplied by a quick, painless, no-nonsense heart attack.
Two of the characters are obsessed with sex—a lips-pursed, onetime harlot who goes husband-shopping at the old imperial club in town, and a salty devil with a beard and bad sports jacket who sits around reading the Kama Sutra. The movie is deeply amused by them. And since it’s so nice and all, they are both rewarded for their odd values.
Mostly, though, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a movie about being both game and stiff-upper-lipped at the same time, and since these are qualities we all wish we possessed, it has what most successful but mediocre films have: a profound element of wish fulfillment. Are you broke and lonely with weak family ties in your golden years? Hie off to a cheap, wacky motel in India! The better the movie does, the more likely it is there will be a sitcom spinoff come 2013.
All the same, its very lack of sharpness is surely part of the reason The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is this year’s must-see for the mature movie-
goer. For, after all, who really wants to watch people decline and die—that is, unless they’ve been run through by a superhero or are turned into a vampire immediately before their expiry? There’s no raging against the dying of the light here, and that’s all to the good, box-office-wise.
And for those who really love British actors, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a late-life version of The Avengers in the sense that it assembles a Murderer’s Row of them for this one movie. You bounce from Judi Dench to Tom Wilkinson to the glorious Bill Nighy to the equally glorious (though sadly little-known in the States) Penelope Wilton before settling down, yet again, with the one who may actually be the greatest of them all.
Maggie Smith, bereft of makeup and with a horrendous haircut, plays an old racist working-class bag—a character far removed from the dowager countess in Downton Abbey, in which she has become a sensation, once again, in her seventies. And yet, Smith’s Mrs. Donnelly is every bit as lived-in, as considered, as controlled. This is not just great acting, it’s joyous acting that transmits a sheer love of performing and makes you happy just to watch it. Forty-two years ago, Smith won her first Oscar as the inspiring, maddening, and literally fascist girls’-school teacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; 33 years ago, she won her second in the deservedly forgotten Neil Simon short-film triptych, California Suite. Unless something very unlikely happens between now and next February, she will win her third for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. She will be the only thing one really remembers about it anyway.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.