There are hints of understated charm and elegance sprinkled throughout The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Moments when two people, battered and bruised by life, share some genuine insight about the human condition. Unfortunately, those moments are lost amid a frenzy of unnecessary storylines and cartoonish complications. It’s a treat to see these veteran actors playing off each other, but you’re better off staying at a different hotel.
The sequel to 2011’s geriatric comedy hit, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, finds most of the cast returning for a second lash. This time out, the owner of the Marigold, Sonny (Dev Patel), is determined to secure financing for a second hotel so he can start a franchise of senior-living homes. Together with the gruff but lovable Muriel (Maggie Smith), Sonny finds a potential buyer, who quickly dispatches a covert operative to evaluate the Marigold. Unfortunately, the Marigold is a complete mess, with each of its residents in various stages of relationship turmoil; Sonny and his fiancée, Sunaina (Tina Desai), are planning their wedding, all under the watchful eye of Sonny’s old “friend” and competitor, Kushal (Shazad Latif); Evelyn (Judi Dench) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) are dancing around the possibility of taking their friendship to the next level; the precarious relationship between Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Carol (Diana Hardcastle) is further challenged by the temptation of infidelity; Madge (Celia Imrie) can’t decide between two competing suitors; and a mysterious new resident, Guy (Richard Gere), is trying to win the hand of Sonny’s reluctant mother (Lillete Dubey). Clearly, this isn’t the best time for Sonny and his residents to be put under the microscope.
The plot synopsis for Marigold may already sound busy, but that’s only the half of it. You also have bickering in-laws, financial intrigue, song and dance numbers, and a possible murder-for-hire plot! Director John Madden seems inspired by the ‘more is better’ approach of Bollywood films, but his flimsy storylines only detract from each other rather than building to a delirious crescendo. Instead of focusing on one major plot, Madden (understandably) wants to give his talented crew of actors a chance to shine. The result is a frustrating experience that gets you engaged with one story, only to abandon it for a different, invariably less-interesting excursion.
That’s not to say that watching Marigold is unpleasant. The casual pacing, probably too slow for younger viewers, has the lazy familiarity of a Sunday afternoon spent with friends. The Marigold is literally a place where everybody knows your name; Sonny calls out the roll each morning to ensure that “none of the guests have passed during the night.” Sonny’s gallows humor helps to keep things light, and Maggie Smith is a droll delight who leaves you craving more of her caustic sarcasm. Still, writer Ol Parker relies on the goodwill built by the first Marigold instead of building original jokes, or infusing his script with any sense of urgency or uncertainty.
Madden does his best to capture India’s bustling charm, where every greeting is sincere and every dinner is a welcome excuse to linger. We dart from crowded streets to quaint hotels, each rife with possibilities and perils. It all looks wonderfully… exotic. Sadly, Madden focuses so much on the bustle that we never feel comfortable enough to enjoy our meal; the next course is arriving while we’re still savoring the appetizer.
Most of the performances are solid, though Gere looks a bit out of place in this distinguished ensemble. Patel strains your nerves as the cartoonish Sonny, while Pickup, Hardcastle, and Imrie occupy stories that aren’t interesting enough to justify their presence. The heart of Marigold is Maggie Smith, along with the chemistry between Nighy and Dench. Shockingly, Smith disappears for huge chunks of time, while Nighy and Dench are kept apart. It’s a gross misuse of resources that accentuates Parker’s cluttered and unfocused script.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a harmless little diversion that has a movie buried in it somewhere. Instead of putting us in a glamourous hotel where we can hang out with our friends by the pool, the filmmakers leave us searching for our luggage on the airport tarmac. With this superb cast, there should be more insight into the dynamics of mature relationships than a glorified episode of The Love Boat. You can check this one out from the comfort of your own living room and save yourself the luxury tax.