‘The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’: Film Review

Busier but also blander and duller than its predecessor

Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and most of the remaining cast of 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' are reunited for this follow-up film also featuring Richard Gere

Honestly titled if nothing else, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a sluggish also-ran compared to its predecessor, 2011’s retirement-themed comedy-drama The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. That original film, like this one directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), was no great masterpiece to start with given its on-the-nose script and shameless sentimentality. But it was likeable enough, and at least had the distinction of being one of the first films to tap successfully into the increasingly significant greying demographic by assembling an all-star cast of treasured British thespians playing plucky types finding a new lease on late life in India. Rounding up most of the old gang once again, and throwing in a couple of American names (including Richard Gere and David Strathairn) to boost its international marketability, this go-round should do similar sized, or even better business worldwide, especially for half-price matinees.

Having thoroughly depopulated the pool of fish-out-water gags with the original movie, Second Best has to rely for momentum on either repeating itself as new characters adjust to the jostling Jaipur environment, or complicating the relationships it established initially, with all the still-extant romantic couples facing the challenges of taking things to the next level.

This means the script by Ol Parker (who also wrote the first film, an adaptation of a novel by Deborah Moggach) has lots of plates to juggle and parallelisms to establish as each duo bickers or misunderstands each other in contrived, synchronized fashion, making for a set of narrative hurdles as repetitive as an Olympic track event. Fans who feel invested in the characters are unlikely to mind, however, and will probably go away satisfied with the excessively tidy way each subplot is resolved.

It would seem that a year or two has passed since the events recorded in the first film, and everything is running tickety-boo at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the hostelry-cum-retirement-community populated entirely by elderly Brits who have “outsourced” their remaining years by moving to the subcontinent where the cost of living is low, the light plentiful and — unlike Spain's traditional retirement destination, the Costa del Sol — the economy is actually booming.

The hotel's local part-owner and manager Sonny (Dev Patel), assisted by resident-turned-employee Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), has transformed the crumbling pile into such a success it’s almost fully occupied. (Mind you, judging by the guest roll-calls each morning there's basically the same six people living there that were left at the end of the last movie.) Sonny hopes to build a franchise by buying another faded establishment nearby, and is first seen — with tart-tongued Muriel as his wing-woman — in the pre-title sequence pitching for financing from magnate Ty Burley (Strathairn) in San Diego.

Everything depends on impressing a hotel inspector who will come to stay at the Best Exotic incognito, so in classic farce fashion Sonny assumes that must be the secret identity of suave American walk-in guest Guy Chambers (Gere), who arrives at the same time as Englishwoman Lavinia Beech (Tamsin Greig), a mere stripling in her mid-forties who's come to check out the hotel on behalf of her elderly mother. As Sonny strives to impress Guy, he neglects the planning for his upcoming wedding to long-suffering girlfriend Sunaina (Tina Desai), who spends an increasing amount of time with her brother’s smooth friend Kushal (Shazad Latif).

Meanwhile, potholes are encountered in the course of true love for the other residents of the hotel. Despite suggestions made in the last film that they would end up a definitive item, Evelyn (Judi Dench) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) are still just good friends, even though it’s patently obvious to everyone else that they’re in love. Norman (Ronald Pickup) and his squeeze Carol (Diana Hardcastle) are seemingly loved up, but their joint lack of commitment to monogamy is posing problems, while senior sexpot Madge (Celia Imrie) dithers over the choice between two rich local suitors.

As the above might suggest, it’s quite a crowded canvas and the screenplay does an only so-so job of knitting all the subplots together in time for the big, colorful, Monsoon Wedding-style nuptials at the end. Soapier and more sugary all around, there’s hardly any of the mournful undertow here that eddied around the character played by Tom Wilkinson in the first film, helpfully pushing against the ongoing tide of cute, saucy one-liners from the other oldies.

There are ominous hints that one of the crusty crew will meet his or her maker by the end, surely a statistical likelihood given the median age of the assembly.

At a certain juncture near the end it seems obvious that just such an outcome was planned, but it fails to pan out, and some might suspect re-shoot triage was performed after negative feedback from a test screening or cold feet from the studio. Likewise, the script seems to be laying the groundwork (echoing another aspect of the Wilkinson plot line in the earlier film) to reveal that Kushal is gay (which might account for his enthusiasm for choreography and constant supply of grapefruit oil), but that gets ducked too, perhaps out of fear of offending Indian censors.

Certainly, this sequel seems to have been made with half an eye on the South Asian arthouse market, which would explain why it improves on the first film by giving the Indian characters stronger storylines, not just for Sonny and Sunaina but also for Sonny's mother Mrs. Kapoor, played with touching dignity by major local star Lillete Dubey (The Lunchbox, Kal Ho Naa Ho). There's even a dance sequence at the end, albeit one more Slumdog Millionaire-style than traditional Bollywood, but still all these elements play like an attempt to get inside Indian culture rather than looking at it from outside as some ineluctably mysterious "other." If Ben Smithard's finely graded cinematography and Martin Childs' production design rather overstate the city and the region's picturesque shabby-chic prettiness, that's sort of an occupational hazard for films made by foreigners shooting in India. It will probably boost tourism, and surely that was one of the aims in the end.

Production companies: A Fox Searchlight Pictures presentation in association with Participant Media, Imagenation Abu Dhabi of a Blueprint Pictures production
Cast: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, Richard Gere, David Strathairn, Diana Hardcastle, Lillete Dubey, Tamsin Greig, Shazad Latif
Director: John Madden
Screenwriter: Ol Parker, based on a screen story by Ol Parker and John Madden
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, John Madden, Michael Dreyer
Director of photography: Ben Smithard
Production designer: Martin Childs
Costume designer:  Louise Stjernsward
Editor: Victoria Boydell
Music: Thomas Newman
Casting: Michelle Guish, Seher Latif

Rated PG, 122 minutes