Roughly midway through “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a lovesick Bill Nighy notes that Judi Dench’s character has “checked out,” referring of course to her status at the hotel. Still, the pun hangs in the air, suggesting a possible euphemism for a more permanent condition. The imminence of death serves as a source of both comedy and poignant self-reflection in this spirited sequel to the unexpected 2012 success, assembled hastily enough that none of its ensemble had a chance to “check out” before they could all cash in, hoping to duplicate the original’s $46 million haul (nearly twice as much abroad).
If the first “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” was all about seeking rest and relaxation half a world away in India, then its relatively hectic successor finds the entire ensemble hustling jobs in Jaipur: Douglas (Nighy) gives tours of sites about which he knows precious little; Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup) tend bar at the expats’ club; Evelyn (Dench) hunts for exotic fabrics; and Muriel (Maggie Smith) co-manages the establishment, which has been such a success that its ambitious — and newly engaged — owner, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), is looking to expand.
All this busyness is good for business, though it makes for a rather high-stress retirement, as no one seems to be taking advantage of the fact they made the move to escape the grind. Though his original hotel is still something of a shambles, Sonny has ambitions to buy a neighboring property and fix it up, too, but for that he’ll need the financial backing of Evergreen, a U.S.-based retirement company managed by a visionary investor (David Strathairn) whose philosophy, “Leaves don’t need to fall,” may as well be the mantra of all the hotel’s overworked residents.
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Deferred retirements aside, they’ve never been happier — which is a curious place to begin for a film that must then manufacture inconsequential misunderstandings and easily resolved conflicts in order to justify another two hours spent in the company of its generally affable ensemble. Even Smith, so wickedly pungent in our memories, seems to have warmed this time around: Nineteen days older than Dench both onscreen and in real life, she’s the character we can’t bear to live without — a fact that director John Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker (both back from the original) clearly calculated when shifting the narration duties over from Dench to Smith. She opens and closes the film, sitting there like a fresh-cut onion, making you question whether that mistiness you feel is real or some well-calculated chemical reaction — in much the same way Thomas Newman’s score works, elbowing its way in to boost the energy at any moment we might want to catch our breath, while also supporting two full-blown Bollywood-style dance numbers.
Actually, if the filmmakers have a secret weapon, it would be the addition of Richard Gere, who can weaken the knees of a certain demographic faster than you can say “osteoporosis.” Here, the silver fox shows up at the hotel so soon after Strathairn’s character indicates he’ll be sending an inspector that Sonny can’t help but see through the man’s cover story. Buzzing with ambition, Sonny all but ignores his fiancee (Tina Desai) as he trips over himself trying to impress his distinguished guest, even going so far as to thrust his own mother (Lillete Dubey) into the stranger’s arms, if it would sweeten the deal.
Considering that the vast majority of audiences for the original came to see the venerable British cast — all of whom except Dench appeared in the Harry Potter movies — it’s rather too much to ask that they invest so much interest in Sonny’s entrepreneurial aspirations this time around. He’s making beginner’s mistakes, whereas the rest of the ensemble possess the life experience to make their respective quandaries a bit more interesting.
For example, after all these years, Norman has finally found a woman (Diana Hardcastle) who makes him want to settle down and be monogamous, only to discover that she appears to have other ideas about exclusivity. And, of course, there’s the ongoing do-si-do between Evelyn and Douglas, still unconsummated, which the film stretches as far as humanly possible, invoking her lingering feelings toward her dead husband and the unfinished business between him and his ex. (Penelope Wilton couldn’t resist returning, so Parker wrote her into the sequel.)
It’s not so common to find an ensemble of this caliber so enthusiastic to work together, and that chemistry comes across — not so much in the romantic pairings, which Parker rather implausibly constructs so that no one goes home alone (even Sonny’s wedding choreographer finds a mate). Rather, whatever spark exists off-camera can’t help but reveal itself during those irreverent, potentially insensitive moments that made the original so much fun. Even the great Smith isn’t a good enough actress to hide the clear pleasure she takes from zinging an old friend with a line like, “Just because I’m looking at you when you talk, don’t think I’m listening — or even interested.”
For a film conceived without any chance of a sequel in mind, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” actually lends itself surprisingly well to being extended, mostly because the cast make their characters so lively, we’re happy for the chance to spend more time with them (the kind of sentence to which the movie can’t seem to resist tacking on a gratuitous “before they die”). The laughs aren’t as numerous this time around, but at least they’re a little less obvious.
Overall, that seems to have been Madden and Parker’s goal: to defy — or at least delay — whatever expectations fans thought they saw coming. Hence Sonny’s decision to expand his operation, as opposed to the more cliched (and almost certainly more compelling) alternative, wherein some competitor might try to strong-arm them into selling the hotel. So, Parker attempts to spin a few surprises that audiences wouldn’t have immediately come up with on their own, while Madden can be relied upon to keep it all moving swiftly enough that we actually get caught up in their fairly trivial concerns — like the right way to serve a cup of tea. So, whether or not the film is to your taste, its creators have tried to do right by the original, brainstorming a plot deserving of a sequel before constructing another “Exotic Marigold Hotel” that’s hardly second-best.