Three years ago, on a somewhat different scale, the success of the first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was weirdly akin to the success of the first Avengers movie. Both relied on ensemble superheroics and charmingly fractious banter among movie stars. This year brings sequels to both films. First up is The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the one without the explosions.
Director John Madden’s easygoing follow-up resembles a slightly scattered second season of a BBC sitcom. We’re back in the Jaipur, India, retirement hotel run by manic, ambitious Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), who plans to open a second establishment. The Maggie Smith character, a onetime Cockney racist, has mellowed and become Sonny’s co-manager. The expat residents played by Bill Nighy and Judi Dench remain fast friends, and perhaps more. Already, right there, add ’em up: Smith, Nighy and Dench, together again, lending many moons’ worth of relaxed authority to a wisp of a story. That’s more than enough for fans of the first picture.
The rest of the gang returns as well, minus Tom Wilkinson (whose character died at the end of the first one). Celia Imrie’s Madge, who tends bar at a local watering hole, is poised between two suitors. On the other hand, the way she eyes Richard Gere’s visiting novelist, who may be working undercover for the investor (David Strathairn) Sonny hopes to secure, the film momentarily becomes more carnal than anything in Fifty Shades of Grey.
This is 50 shades of another sort of gray, and there’s a tremendous box-office appetite for it. Written by Ol Parker, Second Best offers little you couldn’t write yourself, but it does so with respectable level of craft. The appeal lies in the ensemble playing. I adore what Nighy can accomplish in the minimalist double-take department, just as I admire the key scene late in the film between Dench and Smith for its quiet simplicity. Too often in Madden’s film the actors are stuck propping up the story of Sonny’s dithering crisis of confidence before his big wedding. But if you’ve seen the ads for the film, you’ve seen the big wedding dance at the big wedding, so … spoiler alert: The end is happy.
Imrie, a wonderful performer too little known in America, recently told the Daily Mail that The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel could never have been made in Hollywood, because in Hollywood “nobody has wrinkles.” The movie’s smooth to the point of blandness, but its faces really do tell a story. And having Gere’s silverly mane share the same film with Strathairn’s is almost too much fabulous hair for one diversion.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (PG): ★★★✩✩