Cast makes 'Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' shine ✭✭✭

A comedy-drama saved by the casting bell,"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" arranges for a tiptop collection of British character women and men to bring out the best in a pleasantly predictable story. Wait. Shouldn't that be "unhappily predictable"? Not always, folks: Some projects are better off going easy on the surprises, and concentrating on a reassuring level of actorly craft.

When the racist crank completely at odds with India (played by Maggie Smith) comes on muttering about "brown faces and black hearts, reeking of curry," you know it's just a matter of time before she embraces a wider world. And you know Smith is the wily ham for the job.

Published in 2004, Deborah Moggach's book ("These Foolish Things") came from a premise described this way by the author: What about the idea of "setting up retirement homes in developing countries where it's sunny and labour is cheap? So I created an Indian whiz kid called Sonny who sets up a retirement home in Bangalore and fills it with Brits."

Director John Madden's film switches the locale to Jaipur. Adapter Ol Parker does more or less what Joss Whedon did with"The Avengers": make room for the ensemble super heroics, albeit on more of a tea-time scale of action.

Seduced by a highly misleading brochure, seven disparate characters travel from England to India to take a chance on the hotel of the title. Widower Evelyn, the narrator figure played by a refreshingly relaxed Judi Dench, becomes fast friends with one half of an unhappy couple played by Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton. Tom Wilkinson's abruptly retired High Court judge is on a mission to find the man who got away, decades earlier. Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie are looking for love. Smith's character has come to India for an affordable hip replacement, but she finds herself gradually seduced by the chaos both within and surrounding the bedraggled hotel run by Sonny, portrayed by Dev Patel, previously seen running and dancing for his life in "Slumdog Millionaire."

The characters are "types," some fresher than others. Wilton's stuck with the role of the miserable shrew ("When I want your opinion," she snaps at Nighy, "I'll give it to you."), but she's humanized in the nick of time. Director Madden encourages honesty and easy-breathing banter. The attitudes evinced by most of the characters, and the movie itself, are those of the admiring tourist, and as two-hour tours go, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" goes smoothly.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' -- 3 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and language)

Running time: 2:04

Opens: Friday

CHICAGO

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