Everyone has their favorites, their collection of actors and actresses who they wouldn’t mind hearing recite a grocery list, let alone the works of great writers and directors. They inhabit a happy place inside our aesthetic, providing pleasures that might otherwise not exist had someone else been cast in said role. We forgive them when they disappoint, which is rarely, and blossom with pride when they prove more than the material given, which is quite often.
All of which leads to the easy to hate, yet difficult to not enjoy about The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. This is sloppy filmmaking at best, a chance to cash in on the underserved adult demographic which made the original movie a solid 2012 hit. On the other hand, it features Oscar winners Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, as well as seasoned thespians in Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, and new to the cast, Richard Gere. Add in Dev Patel, previous director John Madden, and screenwriter O.I. Parker, and you’ve got a recipe for repeat success… hopefully.
When last we left our gang of aging pensioners, Patel’s Sonny had shown them how wonderful life in India can be, the seemingly substandard accommodations notwithstanding. Now, Douglas (Nighy) has dumped his shrew of a wife, Evelyn (Dench) has become more important in his life, and she’s found a job working as a textile buyer. Madge (Imrie) is being wooed by two potential (and wealthy) suitors while Muriel (Smith) has decided to help manage the hotel. Into their world walks Guy (Gere), a wannabe writer looking to work on his novel, and Lavinia (Tamsin Greig) a woman seeking for a place for her aging mother. Sonny is also struggling with his impending nuptials, too busy trying to open a second resort while his bride-to-be (Tena Desae) stews.
Several critics have commented that The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is nothing more than a landlocked The Love Boat, and they’re be right. The entire purpose of the movie is to prove that older people are just as frisky as the young, with the added benefit of age, wisdom, and perspective to keep them (somewhat) in check. For those of you born after said reference makes sense, what we have here is a series of nominally connected vignettes, each one offering a showcase for the seasoned actors involved, all leading to very little but providing minimal amusements along the way. In the end, things are wrapped up with a pat but acceptable bow, and you walk out of the theater feeling vindicated for spending so much time with so little content.
Yet that’s the allure of movies like this: the feeling of comfort and security these famous faces provide. People can joke about her win all they want, but when she is on, there is no one better than Dench. She projects a matronly quality that contradicts her often racy and ribald actions. As she proved in Skyfall, give her a juicy role and she’ll deconstruct and rebuild it from the ground up. Here, she’s serviceable and safe, which is what we want. The same goes for Smith. Sure, as she’s gotten older, her facade has become more frail, but get her in a dust-up and she’ll destroy you.
In the second tier are Nighy and Imrie, content to sit back and let others do the heavy lifting. They are matched by Patel, who seems to play everything a pitch that can best be described as genial desperation. Gere adds nothing except his own gray fox finery. Everyone else proves to be solid second fiddles to the mild fireworks on display. For his part, Madden understands the allure of a sun-dappled backdrop, yet there is very little of India in this movie. Oh sure, it’s talked about a lot, but we don’t get to the heart of the country. Politics and philosophies are tossed aside for steamy bowls of curry and lovely local color — lots of local color.
So the question obviously becomes, “What’s the attraction?” “Why would I want to spend my money to see this movie?” The answer is equally apparent: because you enjoyed the first one enough to care about the characters and their concerns. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel doesn’t let you down in this department, but it also does little to differentiate itself from the first. In fact, one could easily see this turning into a mock Merchant/Ivory-lite franchise, famous faces wondering in and out while favorites find new adventures or, in a nod to reality, die off.
Of course, all this goodwill doesn’t cover the fact that this is nothing more than a polished TV sitcom expanded to 90 plus minutes. The complications are contrite and the problems easily overcome. Even when we sense possible danger (Sonny’s gal being pursued by a rich rival), we know it will all work out in the end. As the time moves by, we wait for the denouement, the deus ex machina, or any other narrative contrivance to get us out and into the next bit, and when it comes, we’re not satisfied so much as resold on the whole experience.
Put another way, if you liked the first Exotic Marigold Hotel, you’ll enjoy this revisit. If you’re expecting something new, novel, or not reeking of an easy paycheck, perhaps steer clear. Of course, if Dench and company are part of your aforementioned list, you’ll love this return trip. All others should perhaps consider booking their entertainment lodging elsewhere.