When the great marketing teams of yore invented the idea of counter-programming, they had no way of knowing how or when the concept would eventually reach its highest state of perfection. They didn't understand that one day, very soon, there'd be a film that a) managed to appeal to everyone who actually wanted to see it for what it was, and b) that it would entice audiences who were simply turned off by the idea of the dominant movie on that particular opening weekend, and also c) that the production of that film itself would resemble its biggest rival. In other words, this movie is The Avengers for old people.
It's as if Nick Fury himself, after bringing Iron Man and Thor and Captain America together, decided to assemble this bunch just to see if he could pull it off and he wound up with an ensemble cast that is nothing less than the Superheroes of Contemporary British Cinema, the tea-and-biscuit-iest group of people you could imagine, the dream team. Not only is Judi Dench here but also Maggie Smith, her co-star in Ladies in Lavender, which you obviously went to see. And not only is Maggie Smith here but also Penelope Wilton, who co-stars with Smith on Downton Abbey, a show you know you watch like your life depended on it. Bill Nighy, the MVP of Love, Actually and Tom Wilkinson, the boss of everything else, they're in it, too.
As a group of characters they're types, each struggling against the indignities of old age without a golden parachute, leaving England for India and a place called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a retirement spot "for the elderly and beautiful." For most it's not voluntary: Smith needs surgery faster than National Health will provide it, while Wilton, Nighy and Dench reach retirement age in a crappy economy and need something less expensive than what they could afford in the U.K. Only Wilkinson is taking his voyage to India voluntarily (and, at least at first, secretly), hoping to find something he left behind. And over the course of the action each pensioner finds his or her way through the rough, sad, worrisome patches of aging, for better and for worse.
As for their host, Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel, money and relationship issues dog him, too, even as he puts on a happy face for his guests. And if that sounds a little bit too colonialist for you, then it might well be. But the movie manages to keep away from the worst case scenario cloud that inevitably looms over a story like this, one about people finding themselves in foreign lands, and that's a relief. No "exotic" people of color teach, advise or rescue the sad white people from themselves. They have to work it out on their own. On that score it's mostly free of sin, and the cast is so professional and accomplished that they even sell the weakest links in the material and bring you to a place where you'll find yourself genuinely moved. So if the film is guilty of anything then it's that it makes those last decades of life seem cozier than they really are, providing its characters -- and, of course, the audience -- with a comfortable fantasy about growing old, one where there will always be people around to care for you and stand by your side while you deal with the worst of it, where a community is nearby to come to the rescue when you need them most. Kind of like those guys with the capes and hammers and shields and suits of iron.