“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” wasn’t just a surprise hit of 2012, it was a welcome one, in being a rare film about elderly people that had as much fun and sauciness as it did pathos. Its gentle mix of drama and comedy was delivered by a formidable array of British thespians, some remarkably in their 70s, using their life experience in a much more engaging manner than, say, the veterans of “The Expendables.”
So one certainly can’t begrudge a sequel, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” even one that begins to creak a little beneath its conceit.
It’s again directed by John Madden and written by Ol Parker, now moving beyond the original source of Deborah Moggach’s novel. The original cast returns as the retired Brits discovering an Indian summer, fittingly in India, courtesy of a young entrepreneurial hotelier with a vision to “outsource old age” to his rambling hotel in Rajasthan’s capital, Jaipur.
This picks up their story a few months later, with the guests firmly settled in the city but still needing to cement their love lives. Evelyn (typically dignified Judi Dench) and Douglas (reliably fidgety Bill Nighy) are shying away from the relationship each clearly craves; new couple Norman and Carol (Ronald Pickup and Diana Hardcastle) are amusingly reticent about monogamy; and Madge (Celia Imrie) can’t decide between two well-to-do local suitors.
Running parallel to their romantic dilemmas are those of their host, Sonny (Dev Patel), whose mind is distracted from his impending marriage to Sunaina (Tina Desai) by his stuttering attempts to expand his business. Courting finance from an American hotel chain, he’s told that a hotel inspector will arrive incognito to judge his potential. When silver-haired Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) arrives with a very light bag and a flimsy story about writing his first novel, Sonny showers him with attention, to the detriment of the other guests and his fiancée.
Loosely structured around the festivities leading to the wedding, the film’s formula is much the same as before, with the mellow romancing spiced up by the two comedians in the pack – Patel’s exuberantly silly Sonny, at once visionary and daft as a brush, and his new co-manager Muriel (Maggie Smith), the misanthrope who finds her humanity in the new culture. The pair get the lion’s share of the best lines, whether Sonny’s explanation of his hotel’s appeal (“Why die here, when I can die there?”) or Muriel’s summary of their business trip to California (“It made death more tempting”). In fact, their touching bond is the story’s central relationship.
The additions to the cast fare less well. Guy predictably has hearts fluttering, but as an actor Gere seems all at sea in this company, that lazy, slo-mo blinking of his stretched to cover both mystery and mystification, while his instant attraction to Sonny’s mother doesn’t ring true. Tamsin Greig, as another newbie guest, has virtually nothing to do. To be fair, both of them flounder according to Parker’s script, which becomes clunky as it attempts to chart new territory.
Madden again captures some of Jaipur’s color and bustle, if falling far short of its overwhelming assault on the senses. In any case, this time the tension of culture clash has been replaced by the fractiousness of jealousy and distrust.
With this edginess, and the lame American storyline, the package becomes a little less charming. There’s an unavoidable double meaning in the title: whereas it’s meant to refer to Sonny’s dream of a second hotel, one might wonder if this is the “second best” of the films; and indeed it is, though the core characters are as winning as ever, and it’s hard not to succumb to a joyous, Bollywood-style finale.
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