In theory, seeing Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy share the screen should be a delight.
In reality, the seriocomic romp "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" merely has its moments, but more often feels heavy-handed, sappy and overlong. Sure, it'll seem warm and crowd-pleasing but probably only to crowds of a certain age, who may relate to these characters who find themselves in flux in their twilight. Handsome as the film is from John Madden, who directed Dench to her supporting-actress Oscar for "Shakespeare in Love," it too often spells out too much, and features painfully literal symbolism like a bird taking flight at just the right time.
Still, Dench does some of the loveliest work of her lengthy and esteemed career here as Evelyn, who's recently widowed after 40 years of marriage and struggling to establish an identity on her own. She's one of several elderly Brits who travel to a resort in Jaipur, India, that advertises itself as an elegant destination for retirees.
There's also Graham (Wilkinson), a burned-our high court judge with fond memories of India from his youth; Muriel (Smith), a cranky former housekeeper in need of a hip replacement who doesn't even bother to hide her racism; the bickering married couple Douglas (Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton), who are miserable in their new assisted-living community; Madge (Celia Imrie), who'd rather be out hunting for a rich husband than taking care of her grandchildren; and Norman (Ronald Pickup), who's similarly been looking for love in all the wrong places.
They all end up on the same flight with dreams of a romantic, Rudyard Kipling-esque adventure waiting for them. Upon arrival, though, they find the place is empty and falling apart, despite the best efforts of Sonny (Dev Patel of "Slumdog Millionaire"), the enthusiastic, young manager who inherited the hotel from his father, to turn it into a palace. Sonny also has his own romantic subplot, having fallen in love with a beautiful, modern young woman (Tena Desae) whom his snobbish, traditional mother doesn't approve of. Patel is very likable here, playing an inherently ingratiating character with no obnoxiousness.
Eventually, all the guests learn to adapt to varying degrees. Each character experiences an obligatory moment of truth in this colorful, bustling city, but the plot machinations in the script from Ol Parker, based on the novel "These Foolish Things" by Deborah Moggach, feel rather creaky. A lot of the humor is also pretty corny: Indian food is so spicy! Viagra is so exciting! And the Internet is so scary and complicated!
Here and there, though, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" wins you over temporarily with a subtle delivery or a poignant exchange. Dench and Wilkinson have a couple of quietly powerful moments together, and Nighy is just heartbreaking with every sad, dry quip he makes.
But mostly, "Marigold Hotel" is old-fashioned, safe and resistant to stray from its comfort zone - like visiting a foreign country and only eating the foods you already know you like.
"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," a Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Running time: 122 minutes. Two stars out of four.