Dir. John Madden
(2012, PG-13, 122 min)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a pleasant film that evaporates as soon as the credits roll. It exists somewhere on the cultural highway between Slumdog Millionaire and Eat Pray Love – a gentle, genteel, unchallenging trifle about experiencing a foreign culture and along the way learning the kinds of life lessons we’ve already learned in dozens of other movies. It seems to have been designed, whatever its charms, to leave little impression at all.

The all-star British cast is capable of more than the film requires them to do. Early scenes introduce them to us: Judi Dench as a recent widow, Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton as a couple near retirement who lost their savings in their daughter’s business venture, Maggie Smith as a racist in need of hip surgery, Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie as frisky seniors still looking for adventure, and Tom Wilkinson as a lawyer with unfinished business. By choice or circumstance, they all converge at an underdog story in Bangalore, India.

Dev Patel plays Sonny Kapoor, the wide-eyed manager of the title hotel, a run-down establishment passed down from his father. The screenplay by Ol Parker has designed a couple of conflicts for him as well, whose neat resolutions will neatly coincide with the elderly characters’ equally neat resolutions: his mother wants him to give up his pie-in-the-sky dreams and sell the hotel, and she also disapproves of his girlfriend, who works at a call center and is not good enough for him.

The film’s chief problem is sentimentality. I am unfamiliar with These Foolish Things, the novel by Deborah Moggach that inspired it, but the film seems like it would be much better suited to comedy than it is to melodrama. It’s filled with actors who are more sprightly and witty than the film gives them an opportunity to be. I thought of Smith as the imposing Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey, who steals scenes with a few words and a glance. And of Nighy as the over-the-hill rock singer in Love Actually. Here they and the rest of the cast play characters smoothed and softened into well-mannered shapes – Smith may play a racist, but you can be sure she’s only a racist so she can learn how not to be a racist by film’s end. The film would benefit from sharper dialogue, a brisker pace, and greater irreverence.

Director John Madden seems like he should have been the right man for the job. He directed Shakespeare in Love, a touching romance that crackled with wit. Dench won her Oscar for that film, playing Queen Elizabeth with zest. In the intervening years, she hasn’t lost any of her vitality. This film, on the other hand, could have stood to borrow some.