“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is proof that art-house films can be as clichéd and soggily sentimental as the big-ticket items playing at the multiplex. The comedy-drama follows a group of British retirees at a ramshackle hotel in Jaipur, India, and it stars just about every aging English actor who didn’t make it into a “Harry Potter” movie and a few who did. For that reason alone, “Hotel” will be a hit among upscale 50+ audiences, since no one else is making movies for or about them. But it’s predictable fluff, sometimes pleasantly so, at others times irritatingly.
Based on the 2004 novel “These Foolish Things” by Deborah Moggach and directed with sturdy dullness by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Debt”), “Hotel” briskly introduces us to its main characters and their problems. Evelyn (Judi Dench) is a recent widow struggling to learn to live for herself. Doug (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) are an old married couple, he shyly adventurous and she complaining. (Wilton’s even more persnickety here than as Mrs. Crawley on “Downton Abbey.”)
Madge (Celia Imrie) is a randy strumpet looking for a rich man; Norman (Ronald Pickup) is an old goat looking for a quickie. Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is returning to India to seek a long-lost love (there are complications). The most problematic character, Muriel (Maggie Smith), is a vicious fusspot who arrives at the hotel to get a new hip; she has never had a good word to say about any person of any color other than a good English gray, and you don’t believe she’s about to start.
There’s a touch of “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Rajasthan” to “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” The assembled cast oohs and ahhs at India’s Day-Glo colors, jammed streets, and general sensory assault, then draws up short when the hotel is reached. It’s a work in progress, to put it kindly, and its owner-manager is a hyperactive young striver named Sonny. Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire” does what he can with the role, but it’s written just this side of brownface. (His girlfriend, played by the lovely Tena Desae, works at a customer service call center, and that’s the best the movie can do to acknowledge modern India — the voice at the end of a Westerner’s phone.)
Similarly, the British actors work hard and invisibly to turn their character types into actual people. It’s an uphill push, despite their gifts. I would probably pay cash money to watch Bill Nighy read from the tax code, and, given Ol Parker’s script, that might be an improvement. The most preposterous development is Muriel’s transformation from a racist old biddy to the climactic scenes’ gracious dea ex machina. It’s as if she went in for a new hip and came out with a character transplant.
But that’s how “Hotel” resolves its conflicts — tidily and with resort to unexpected deaths, last-minute declarations of love, and 180-degree emotional flip-flops. It plays, but you’d have to be desperate to buy in. I don’t begrudge the film’s target audience for that desperation, or for a desire to see the search for fresh meaning in one’s final acts portrayed onscreen. And if you’ve seen a gem like 2006’s “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont,” you know it can be done with honesty, delicacy, humor, and power. By contrast, “Hotel” plays like the Disoriented Express.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.