I would like to see Bill Nighy be a nice guy in more movies. He’s so effective as a ragged, aging musician (Love Actually) or as, say, a creepy ancient vampire (the Underworld series) that I forget what a wonderful actor he is in ordinary roles. He made an excellent bureaucrat (in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I or Hot Fuzz), and shone in an uncredited role as a Van Gogh expert in the heartbreaking Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor.” And he’s a perfect miserable husband in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a mostly charming British comedy in which fine actors make the most of a pat script with an uncomfortably typical streak of cultural tourism in its storyline.
Nighy plays Douglas, whose taut features seem to wind even tighter every time his wife, Jean (fellow Doctor Who alum Penelope Wilton), snips at him. They’re among the English retirees who, in search of something different for their golden years, opt to move to Jaipur’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a retirement joint “for the elderly and beautiful” run by Sonny (Dev Patel), a young man with more enthusiasm than business sense.
The hotel, when the crabby, delayed travelers arrive, isn’t quite what they expected. On the surface, it appears past its prime, but isn’t that how the world sees its new residents as well? And might everything not be quite as it seems? Racist, sullen Mrs. Donnelly (the brilliant Maggie Smith) watches everyone from her wheelchair; her redemption isn’t a quick turnaround but a series of expressions and reactions, quiet and internal yet gracefully displayed. Douglas, breaking free of his sullen wife, goes exploring, lights up and lets the smile playing around his thin lips break free. His attraction to recently widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench) is awkwardly overt; the way it cracks Douglas’ defensive shell is as obvious as the twinkle in Dench’s eye. (Dame Judi handles her character’s awkward, Sex and the City: 30 Years Later blog-post voiceovers as well as anyone could.) And Tom Wilkinson, so flustery and blowhardy in recent great roles, has a quiet, lovely turn as a man who’s finally started to tell long-held secrets; you can see his shoulders slumping a little less with each utterance.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel builds as predictably and stably as a stack of blocks, each scene set solidly atop the last until they inevitably tumble over into a slightly more dramatic conclusion. The set-in-their-ways Brits learn from the idealistic young Indians, and vice versa, and if the characters on both sides are largely clichés, they’re somewhat enlivened by the efforts of the actors — though these efforts can’t quite keep an uncomfortable patronizing streak from pervading the parts in which the nice old British folks use superior communication and accounting skills to teach Sonny how to get his life together. Like its predecessors — from Kinky Boots to Tamara Drewe to Keeping Mum to more films than I have room to list — Hotel charms while you’re watching it, lightly pushes a few buttons (some unintentionally), and gives you little to chew on when you leave the theater. Apart, that is, from a newfound appreciation for Bill Nighy.
THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL: Directed by John Madden. Screenplay by Ol Parker, based on the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach. Cinematography, Ben Davis. Editor, Chris Gill. Music, Thomas Newman. Starring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie and Dev Patel. Fox Searchlight, 2012. PG-13. 124 minutes. Three Stars.