May 9 2012 05:36 PM

Movie stars Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Billy Nighy and a couple of Downton Abbey' performers

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Judi Dench leads a talented cast
When I told a colleague that I was going to catch a screening of John Madden's new film, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, he said it looked like a movie for old people. And he wasn't entirely wrong. It is, after all, a movie about British retirees looking to spend their golden years on a brass budget. But it has a tremendous cast of well-known Oscar winners and nominees who raise the material above its soft-boiled plot-lines. Also, it cashes in nicely on the Downton Abbey mania that continues to sweep the NPR set on this side of the Atlantic.

In this little group, there's Evelyn (Dame Judi Dench), a former housewife who has to come to grips with the fact that her husband spent most of their money before he died. She's sold her flat in London and is determined to make a go of it. Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is a judge who wants to return to the land of his youth in search of a lost love. Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton, best known as Matthew's mother on Downton Abbey) are short on money, having invested in their daughter's tech start-up, while Muriel (Maggie Smith, an Oscar-winner and a Downton regular), a humorous old racist, discovers that the only way she can afford to get a procedure done is by becoming a medical tourist. There's also Norman (Ronald Pickup), an aged player, and Madge (Celia Imrie), an aged gold digger. They come from different economic and educational backgrounds, and they have only one thing in common: a decision to outsource their retirement to India and the Exotic Marigold Hotel. Oh, and also, they're all white.

When they arrive—via bus, since their flight from Mumbai was canceled—they discover that not only is the hotel in terrible shape, it's also managed by the energetic Sonny (Dov Patel, the lead in Slumdog Millionaire), who's facing some serious problems of his own. He's running out of financing to complete his planned series of renovations, and, worse, his mother (Lillete Dubey) disapproves of his choice of fiancée, even though Sunaina (Tena Desae) is smart, gorgeous and employed—the face of new India, a de parture from tradition.

So, you can see that everyone has problems, not the least of which, for some of them, is that they don't really like Indian food. Douglas and Jean don't get along. Norman and Madge (parts that were going to be played by Peter O'Toole and Julie Christie) can't find mates. Evelyn's short on money—a problem she solves by getting her first job, consulting at Sunaina's call center on the best way to speak to older English people, who are sick to tears of talking to people in India when they want to get their router rebooted. Graham's terrified of what will happen if and when he finds the missing piece of his past.

Fortunately, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel's problems have nothing to do with the cast—this is one tremendous group of seniors. The film's ideas and solutions are too easy to digest, and you can usually see what's coming a mile off (insert your own nursing-home joke right here, folks). But, honestly, that's sort of the point. It's not supposed to be a challenging film; it's supposed to be an enjoyable one, and it has a graceful charm to it, because this collection of actors is just so damn talented and appealing as they face the twilight of their lives. That bit is quite universal, actually, and if you can't understand it now, don't worry, you will in a few years. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which opens Friday, May 11, feels a bit like watching a breezy romantic comedy: You desperately hope the man and woman end up together, even though they remind you of your parents—or maybe your grandparents. 

Write to anders@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. You can follow Anders on Twitter at @anderswright.

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