On the basis of the title alone, you have to give credit to “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” for truth in advertising. Offering more of the same, but not as good as its predecessor, the movie will play well with the older audiences who warmed to the first film, but though it provides Maggie Smith with a juicy role and represents another love letter to India (complete with a Bollywood-style dance sequence), it can’t escape a prefabricated feel.
The premise is that due to the unexpected success of the Jaipur hotel as a virtual retirement community for expatriates (a dubious proposition, given that the place appears to be empty apart from the folks from the original, minus Tom Wilkinson’s late Graham Dashwood and Patricia Wilton’s Jean Ainslie, who’s left her husband, Bill Nighy’s Douglas, behind), excitable young owner Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) has decided to expand by seeking investors to provide financing for the purchase of another property. As the film opens, he’s traveled to Los Angeles for discussions with Ty Burley (David Strathairn), the high-minded head of a firm specializing in imaginative retirement communities. Sonny’s accompanied by Muriel Donnelly (Smith), the salty ex-housekeeper who’s become his unofficial advisor and takes the opportunity to comment acidly on America’s shortcomings, such as not properly brewing her beloved tea.
The duo returns to Jaipur with Burley’s assurance that he’ll be sending an inspector to check out their operation. Before long there arrive two new guests—a young woman named Susan (Fiona Mollison), whom Sonny treats dismissively, and a handsome gent named Guy (Richard Gere), who claims to be an aspiring novelist but whom Sonny assumes to be the inspector and treats with overbearing effusiveness. Muriel, however, is not so sure about Sonny’s identification, and Sonny’s widowed mother (Lillete Dubey) is taken aback by Guy’s genteel advances. Sonny’s also near-apoplectic because during his absence his wife-to-be Sunaina (Tina Desae) has been cavorting with his old childhood friend and rival Babul (Rajesh Tailang), and returns simmering with jealousy. Babul’s offer to buy the new property as his partner further irritates the nervous bridegroom, sending him into virtual paroxysms of tribulation.
Meanwhile the other guests are making lives of their own. Evelyn (Judi Dench) takes a job purchasing fabrics for a clothing firm, while the newly-single Douglas is trying to overcome his memory lapses to be a tour guide (as well as his shyness in expressing his feelings for Evelyn—something that’s complicated by the return of his ex-wife and their daughter). Randy Norman (Ronald Pickup) has finally found a housemate in Carol (Diana Hardcastle), but each foolishly doubts the commitment of the other. And man-chasing Madge (Celia Imrie) has two hot prospects in her sights, taken from one or the other by her earnest, supportive driver. Naturally each of these relationship problems works itself out, all against the background of Sonny’s wedding, an extravagant affair that culminates in a perfect real estate deal, fireworks and a massive dance sequence that has almost everybody engaged in synchronized gyrations that would make any Bollywood star blush.
The only exception is Muriel, who’s left to deliver the final iteration of a mantra that the script has been making over and over again—that though most of the characters are certainly of advanced age, that doesn’t mean that they can’t live life to the fullest. In Muriel’s case, to be sure, the movie resorts to what amount to a cruel trick to make the point, but even before that the throwaway references to death and dying become positively oppressive. We get the idea, already.
Of course, despite the cloyingness of the screenplay, the oldsters in the cast—and that includes Gere—are so effortlessly charming that they almost make you forgive the degree of manipulation. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said of Patel, whom director John Madden encourages to do a frantic, bug-eyed routine that exhausts the audience even more than it does him. And despite the presence of lots of engaging local performers in supporting parts, since far too much of the film is devoted to Sonny and his problems, the effect is well-nigh fatal.
“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” like its predecessor, is attractive to look at, with cinematographer Ben Smithard taking maximum advantage of the Indian locations. The production design (Martin Childs), art direction (James Wakefield and Dilip Moore), sets (Ed Turner and Swapnali Das) and costumes (Louise Stjernsward) are pretty, too. But despite the attractive façade, the movie is a pretty ramshackle affair.