The surprise success of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” has inevitably given us “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” its all too aptly titled sequel. It’s a diminution of what was already rather diminutive the first go-round.
What I liked about the first film was, in a sense, extracurricular: It demonstrated that a movie about oldsters could be commercially boffo. It featured a gaggle of retired Brits who for sundry reasons retreat to Jaipur, India, and find a measure of happiness living in a shabby-chic hotel. It certainly didn’t hurt that the Brits were played by such luminaries as Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, and Bill Nighy. They gave the film a full octave range of feeling when considerably less was called for.
The sequel, directed like its predecessor by John Madden and written by Ol Parker, picks up the story after several years. Except for the character played by Wilkinson, whose death closed out the last film, all the regulars have returned.
Muriel (Smith), with Sonny (Dev Patel), is now co-manager of the hotel. Evelyn (Dench) is developing a textile business. Douglas (Nighy), with whom she shares a still undeclared love, is a local (and hilariously inept) tour guide. Madge (Celia Imrie) is still on the prowl for men and has two maharajahs in her sights. Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Carol (Diana Hardcastle) are struggling to maintain monogamy.
The film begins with Sonny and Muriel attempting, in their temperamentally polar ways, to convince a San Diego hotel magnate (David Strathairn) to fund a second Exotic Marigold in Jaipur as the kickoff to a full-fledged Indian franchise. Intrigued but wary, he enlists an undercover hotel inspector to survey the situation in Jaipur.
When two guests check in – Guy (Richard Gere), an American who claims to be a novelist, and Lavinia (Tasmin Greig), a Brit scouting places, she says, to ensconce her mother – Sonny immediately assumes that Guy is the inspector and kowtows to him outrageously, to the point where he neglects his upcoming nuptials to his demanding fiancée, Sunaina (Tina Desai). Guy, meanwhile, takes an instant shine to Sonny’s steely mother, Mrs. Kapoor (Lillette Dubey). We’re supposed to think he’s smitten, but to me he looked like a grifter on the make.
To its credit, the film doesn’t unduly play up the Raj angle. These aging Anglos are enswooned by India and for the most part are humbled by its phantasmagoric bustle. Asian actors get almost as much screen time as white actors. At the same time, the India of this movie is essentially an ersatz confection: We see almost nothing of dire poverty or political distress, and of course, we are treated in the end to a spangly wedding complete with a Bollywood-style finale. (At times the film seems like an outreach of India’s tourism bureau.)
I wouldn’t make mention of these absences if the film, at other points, wasn’t attempting to get all serious on us. We are, for example, primed for at least one of the regulars to expire; the film teases us continually about who, if anyone, that might be.
The gravitas of the Wilkinson scenes in the first film was well earned. This remains true of the sequences here involving Smith. It would have been very easy for her to coast through this movie. That’s the wonderful thing about great actors – they can turn gush into gold.
Another thing I suppose we should be thankful for: None of the codgers turns into a superhero. I’m still getting over the sight of Colin Firth – not as old as these folks but getting up there – doing his ninja moves in “Kingsman.” If Hollywood must have franchises, we could do worse than one highlighting people who have lived a long life and are not on altogether friendly terms with technology. But imagine what this cast could do with something less tutti-frutti! Grade: B- (Rated PG for some language and suggestive comments.)