2015, USA, 122 min.
The nicest thing about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)—where a group of senior Brits get recharged in India and in a creaky hotel—was how relatable it felt. Following the characters through their highs and lows was far from a chore.
In The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, identifiable struggles get sidelined for an endless series of mildly amusing, hollow adventures. We don’t see ourselves—or our future selves—in these folks. The mixture of mortality and rebirth and sweetness is gone, replaced by issues and events that happen to people in movies, not to regular people. If the first movie’s message was, “It’s never too late to begin again,” the sequel’s might be, “Enjoy this choreographed dance number!”
It’s eight months from when the original left off. The delightful and slightly less dilapidated Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is still run by the verbose Sonny (Dev Patel) and the perpetually sour Mrs. Donnelly (Maggie Smith). The difference is success. Sonny wants an infusion of American cash (represented by a bearded David Strathairn) to extend his little Indian empire. As for the residents, much is happening—too much, actually.
Returning director John Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker up the romantic settings and the lovers’ quarrels. Evelyn (Judi Dench) has started a demanding new job, which complicates things with Douglas (Bill Nighy), her crush turned kind-of boyfriend. It’s the only honest plotline here. Just about every character—even minor ones like lovable ladies’ man Norman (Ronald Pickup) and saucy Made (Celia Imrie)—have stories devoted to them. Sonny, alone, has three: shadowing the man he believes is an important hotel evaluator (Richard Gere), fending off a well-funded rival (Shazad Latif) and appeasing the frustrated Sunaina (Tina Desai) as their marriage approaches.
Because the film favors frenetic gloss over personal introspection and growth, flaws emerge. Patel’s ingratiating motor mouth, a nice complement in the first movie, irritates in larger doses. Nighy and Dench’s portrayal of confused lovers lacks heat; they act more like annoyed coworkers than lovers. What exactly are they trying to save?
A better question is, why are we here? Fans of the first movie see all their favorites return, but Madden and Parker’s mistake is thinking the characters were the reason why The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a surprise hit in 2012. No. It’s what Evelyn, Douglas and the rest felt—loneliness, confusion, regret and rebirth. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has run out of emotions to share, so we’re offered activity in lieu of substance. That’s a bad expansion plan.