In May 2012, on the same weekend that The Avengers debuted, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel also hit theaters, serving as an unintentional counterpoint. Like that Marvel movie, Marigold Hotel was a supersized gathering of stars—mostly respected English actors of a certain age, including Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith—except that rather than trying to save the planet, they were mostly concerned with saving what little time they had left, negotiating the aches, pains and regrets of getting older. Although Marigold Hotel was more than a touch too silly and sappy, it was cheering to see that in an era of record-annihilating comic book blockbusters, movies geared to other audiences could still be hits.
Unfortunately, Marigold Hotel’s sequel bears a lot of the same follow-up problems that befall superhero films and other blockbuster franchises. Too many characters to juggle; it artificially raises all stakes; it repeats a lot of the same themes of the first film; never quite justifies its existence beyond making more money—all in all, you’d be better off re-watching The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
John Madden returns to direct; similarly, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel reunites the original cast while adding a few new faces. (The notable absence is Wilkinson, whose Graham Dashwood died in the first film. The actor’s restrained poignancy would have gone a long way to helping mitigate this sequel’s squishy tone.) With the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel now a success, Sonny (Dev Patel) and his business partner Muriel (Smith) consider expanding their modest empire, eyeing a second property in Jaipur. After meeting with potential investors in San Diego, Sonny and Muriel prepare for the arrival of a mysterious hotel inspector, whose review could make or break their plan. Soon, the handsome Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) sets foot on the property, arousing Sonny’s suspicion: This must be the inspector disguising his true identity by claiming to be a divorced man wanting to find a little quiet time to finally write his novel.
With its gentle charms and undemanding storyline, the 2012 original tweaked the standard westerner-goes-to-exotic-foreign-locale narrative through the strength of its performances and by acknowledging the sometimes-contentious relationship between the U.K. and India. (For some of Marigold Hotel’s greying characters, traveling to Jaipur meant returning to a childhood home that’s radically changed in the interim.) Mortality and the possibility of fresh beginnings remain at the forefront of Second Best, but the novelty of the setup has drifted away.
In its place is a lot of busyness, little of it edifying. Sonny and his fiancée Sunaina (Tina Desai) are fast approaching their wedding, but he’s so stressed with the hotel that he’s not giving her enough attention—plus, he’s jealous of her close friendship with Kushal (Shazad Latif), whose family riches will soon make him Sonny’s competitor in the hotel business. Guy courts Sonny’s mother (Lillete Dubey), who remains a gruff busybody, while Douglas (Nighy) gingerly continues to pursue Evelyn (Dench), the spark of a relationship that appeared at the end of Marigold Hotel not yet developing into a romance.
All of these plot strands, along with several others, are aggressively nice and sweet, and they’re executed by seasoned actors who make naturalness seem deeply pleasant. But considering that the original, based on Deborah Moggach’s 2004 novel These Foolish Things, felt like a soufflé, it’s hard to justify a return trip. Set about eight months after the first film, Second Best frankly hasn’t given the characters enough time to change since we’ve last seen them.
The one character who most radically needs to change doesn’t—and he’s annoyingly front-and-center in Second Best. Patel’s Sonny was a mild irritant in Marigold Hotel, his ingratiating motormouth shtick barely tolerable, but for the sequel the filmmakers have decided he needs to be a larger presence, playing little more than a fast-talking, overly effusive dreamer, his character’s heavily accented English only accentuating his tone-deaf tomfoolery. Because Sonny so confidently assumes that Guy is the hotel inspector, we know he’s not, which makes Sonny’s ceaseless, unsuccessful attempts to woo Guy all the more embarrassing to sit through. It’s rare to watch a movie when you don’t want one of its main characters to end up happily ever after in love: Surely Sunaina can find somebody better, right?
With Wilkinson gone, Nighy and Dench are left to do the dramatic heavy lifting, although Douglas is also saddled with some dopey comedic business involving local tours he gives while having an Indian boy feed him information through an earpiece. Smith does her cranky-grandma routine, and David Strathairn shows up sporting a really great beard. The first film was a hit, and this one will probably do well, too. But by the end of Second Best, I envied Graham Dashwood, who didn’t live to see what came next.
Director: John Madden
Writers: Ol Parker (screenplay); Ol Parker, John Madden (screen story)
Starring: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, David Strathairn, Richard Gere
Release Date:March 6, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.