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Passage to India 

'Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' a jumble of British legends

click to enlarge TO THESPIA! One may find one's patience tried at one's viewing of 'Marigold.'
  • TO THESPIA! One may find one's patience tried at one's viewing of 'Marigold.'

If The Avengers starred British pensioners, it would be The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Senior citizens deserve this reward; they're good and faithful moviegoers. Based on Deborah Moggach's novel These Foolish Things, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a summit for British thespians as several distinguished elders meet in a story held together by a peeling retirement hotel in Jaipur, a Raj-era ruin.

The old folks have fled the expense of England for retirement in Rajasthan, and they respond to this landscape in different ways. A widow (Judi Dench) gradually blossoms; a married man (Bill Nighy) shows modest enchantment; a wizened gent (Ronald Pickup) expands his randy goatishness; a wife (Penelope Wilton) responds with absolute disgust to the heat and noise and spices and insects and the filth.

Some Desi-interest arises in the form of the Marigold Hotel's hapless manager, Sonny (Dev Patel). Sonny's avoidance of an arranged marriage provides perfunctory under-60 love interest. Patel is very funny, but he's funny in what George Orwell described as "the comic babu of the Punch [magazine] tradition." Sonny, for instance, tells his guests that he understands their agedness: "You have heard the chimes at midnight, and you have grown long in the tooth."

So it goes for Ol Parker's script, with its shrewd use of the sometimes-maligned expression "one." "Obviously, one's read one's Kipling," says a traveler, now wise to the ways of India, with its mongooses and cobras. These transplants all describe themselves as "one," as if they're not sure if they're even a one anymore. And the arc careens too high for Maggie Smith—very funny, but plaintive. Here, she plays a terrified Cockney racist who suddenly proves her unlikely superpowers.

But watching something impressive, such as the scene of Tom Wilkinson's Graham sitting in a garden and unfolding on his personal life, I thought, "This is really fine playwriting. Too bad it's a film."

'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' opens May 11 at Summerfield Cinemas.

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