The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was, to say the least, a most unexpected global hit. The idea of a group of English senior citizens moving to Jaipur, India to give themselves a better retirement – although intriguing – was expected to make money as a niche bit of counterprogramming but then people started seeing it and telling their friends. And suddenly, a sequel didn’t seem like a bad idea.
Now we have The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and, if it’s not quite got that shiny, new film intrigue, seeing it is certainly like visiting some old, dear friends.
The film opens with hotel proprietor and co-manager, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), and co-manager Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) in San Diego to raise funds for expanding into a second hotel. They impress Ty Burley (David Strathairn) enough that he agrees to fund their enterprise if his inspector approves.
From there we cut to our old friends from the first film. Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) and Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy), who seemed to be getting together at the end of the first film, aren’t quite there yet – both seem to want to be, but neither can screw up the courage to take that last step (in other words, they’re dithering); Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) and Carol Parr (Diana Hardcastle) are together but, apparently, not quite exclusive; Marge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) has two suitors and can’t seem to choose which one she really wants, and Sonny and Sunaina (Tina Desai) are engaged and planning their wedding.
Into the Marigold come two new faces, Lavinia Beech (Tamsin Greig), who is scouting the hotel out for her mother, and Guy Chambers (Richard Gere), a writer who is there to write a book. Sonny suspects Guy is Ty’s ‘guy’ – the inspector – and sucks up to him as only he can, while pretty much ignoring Lavinia.
We get to see the run down property that Sonny wants to renovate and meet an old friend of his, Kushal (Shazid Latif) – who is helping Sunaina choreograph the couple’s wedding dance. He’s handsome and smooth, so naturally Sonny gets jealous.
Evelyn has been working part-time for a fabric company and when her boss wants a meeting with her, she’s sure it’s to let her go. Norman is working at the Viceroy Club – the posh hangout from the first film – which has fallen on hard times (he has to water down the booze…). And, of course, Guy finds Sonny’s mother (Lillete Dubey) intriguing – though she’s not having any of it.
We even get a return visit from Douglas’ wife, Jean (Penelope Wilton), who has returned for a very specific reason.
Now that the culture shock of the first film is over, it seems like there’s a lot less of India in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – Bollywood-style wedding dance aside – though it remains a part of the film simply because the characters have become more familiar with it.
Instead, the film moves through relationships and the obstacles thereto in an easy, deftly paced dance of meeting (and occasionally exceeding) expectations. Written, again, by Ol Parker, and directed, again, by John Madden, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has charm and wit to spare. The cast is comfortable – as only old friends can be – and watching them (even through the occasional clinker) is a joy. The dialogue between Muriel and Evelyn is particular sparkling – Smith and Dench own the screen when they’re featured (though the same could be said for any of the cast – they’re that good).
One of the most pleasant surprises is just have well Gere fits into the cast of familiar characters. He may be younger than most of them (at a mere 65), but it only takes a few seconds for it seem like he’s always been there.
Greig’s character, on the other hand, works precisely because she doesn’t belong there. She’s an interloper and, though she doesn’t have that much to do, makes that work as naturally as possible.
There are a few twists that aren’t telegraphed but part of the film’s charm is that it treads some familiar territory, plot-wise, with this particular cast. The joy of this film is seeing this cast at work – and seeing how, when those few but well-timed twists occur, they feel of a piece with the familiar.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel shows us that it’s not the story so much as how you tell it. Parker, Madden & Co. tell it extremely well.
Final Grade: A-
Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight