DVD Release Date: September 18, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: May 4, 2012 (limited); May 18 (wider)
Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, brief language, and adult themes)
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 120 min.
Director: John Madden
Cast: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Dev Patel, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Tena Desae

Though people often say they want more original stories that don’t fit a typical formula, the truth is what audiences really respond to are contrived plots in which the characters feel real. That’s the key, that combination of “the warm blanket of familiar narrative beats” with characters that have some depth, dimension, and are played authentically.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a Brit-indie charmer that succeeds on those counts, particularly compared to recent formulaic character-thin American holiday flicks like Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve. Those disasters would mislead you to believe that “formula” is the fundamental problem; it’s not. Yes, formula often requires allowance for circumstantial and intellectual shortcuts but, when played right (as it is here), the familiar can provoke introspection, provide entertainment, and be emotionally satisfying.

Based on Deborah Moggach’s best-selling novel, These Foolish Things, this adaptation certainly follows a recognizable structure. A group of strangers—retirees, all whom find themselves at various personal crossroads—are thrown together in a new environment in which they’re forced to face their issues and each other. Naturally, each grows from taking a journey they never expected, with as many laughs as tears along the way.

Each character fits a “type,” too. There’s the recently-widowed, the crumudgeon spinster, the sexually-adventurous—but secretly vulnerable—singles (a male and female each), and the repressed married couple whose honor to vows has kept them from facing their relational dysfunction. There’s even the token Gay Bachelor (seeking out the long-lost love of his youth). The script provides a character peg to fill every plot hole including, for good measure, a burst of youth in the form of an enthusiastic but inexperienced hotel manager whose own necessary journey will be influenced by the elderly around him.

As if to emphasize the secondary importance of the plot, once these unrelated characters are introduced they are rather swiftly sent off to India, joined together at the same hotel in a way that is never made fully clear. But details in an obvious formula are more tedious than necessary; how they all arrive here is inconsequential to the fact that they simply do, so why waste any serious time on it? This movie certainly doesn’t, and it’s a rare bit of laziness that actually respects our intelligence (and patience). Other transitions and even conclusions are rushed as well, but not to the detriment of the characters or how we feel about them.

In simple but fair terms, this is an ensemble version of Eat Pray Love for the geriatric set. The difference between the tone of the two (and why this is better than that) is that EPL glorified narcissism, portraying it as spiritual depth and liberation. The group here struggles with similar existential voids but with a humble sobriety and growing self-awareness that evokes our empathy.