The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a delightful counterprogramming surprise back in 2012, when it opened the same weekend as The Avengers and played to a demographic that is rarely catered to in Hollywood. The film became a sleeper hit and word-of-mouth success because of its uniqueness. It also didn’t hurt that the film was a charmer, mixing the pleasures of a travelogue with honest reflections on aging and second chances. Because the first film is so fondly recalled by audiences, its sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, doesn’t manage the same delightful surprise, but it still captures much of what makes the first film so special.
Less a reflective comedy-drama hybrid than the first film, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel plants itself firmly in the romantic comedy genre. Much of this is due to a subtle shift of focus. Because the elderly Brits who made Jaipur, India their home in the first film—Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Ronald Pickup, and Celia Imrie—have mostly settled into their new stations in life, the tensions between East and West can no longer sustain the film’s narrative. So the new focus of conflict comes from the various relationship problems that beset these individuals and their charismatic, hyperactive hotel manager, Sonny (Dev Patel). The story beats may be familiar, but watching 80 year olds act them out lends them a novelty that compensates for their familiarity.
In the first film Sonny got engaged to his girlfriend, Sunaina (Tina Desai), against family objections and economic obstacles. He occupied a small part of the plot, and was mostly there to offer comedic relief, even as he represented the film’s Indian perspective. He’s still the hyperactive, in-over-his head entrepreneur in this film, but he’s given a greater command of the narrative, which rounds out his personality and clarifies his caricaturish aspects. We start The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a few months after the first film ends, on the eve of Sonny and Sunaina’s wedding celebration, and the film is structured around the three stages of the Indian wedding: the engagement party, the family party, and the wedding itself. The problem is, Sonny is too engrossed in his burgeoning hotel business to pay much attention to the wedding preparations.
He’s entered a trial agreement with an American retirement company to open up a second hotel, but first they have to send an undercover hotel inspector to see if his business is up to snuff. Sonny believes that inspector is Guy Chambers (Richard Gere), a refined American who shows up unexpectedly one day with the vague purpose of writing a book while in India, and so he makes it his sole purpose to win Guy over, despite other more important preoccupations in his life. For example, he spends his engagement party catering to Guy’s perceived desires, forgetting his choreographed dance with Sunaina because he spent rehearsal time taking Guy on an impromptu tour of the city. He even hilariously refers to Guy as the “guest of honour,” when Sunaina reminds him that, it being their engagement party, they are the guests of honour. Sonny’s obsession with the inspection causes all sorts of romantic chaos for his family and loved ones, straining his relationship with Sunaina and making the impending wedding a likely storm about to break.
He’s also not the only character dealing with romantic complications. The first film focused on the timid romance between Judi Dench’s Evelyn and Bill Nighy’s Douglas that had an adulterous edge because Douglas was still married to Penelope Wilton’s Jean at the time. But Jean’s gone now and Evelyn has started a new job as a textile purchaser. Because she’s traveling all the time and because Douglas is a passive fellow, the two struggle with defining their relationship and deciding whether they want to start a new courtship this late in life. As for the others, Ronald Pickup’s Norman, a reformed womanizer, struggles with the complications of monogamy, while Celia Imrie’s Madge has to decide between two wealthy Indian suitors who intend to marry her. None of these romantic entanglements are as contrived as the usual romantic comedy obstacles because the film’s conflict is born out of character, not external manipulations. Only Maggie Smith’s Muriel is devoid of romantic entanglement, for even Richard Gere’s Guy sets his sights on Sonny’s mother (Lillete Dubey).
Muriel offers the film its perspective, observing the others in their predicaments and offering her frank assessments of their choices when she feels like it. She also provides most of the film’s narration, much as Dench did in the first film. Because her own narrative is so devoid of external conflict, Smith’s Muriel offers a reflection on the ramifications of the characters’ choices instead of embodying those choices herself. She may have shed her distasteful racism and be thriving as the associate manager at Sonny’s hotel (something she never considered in her old life as a housekeeper), but because she’s ill, she may not live long to enjoy her new life. All she can do is pass on what little knowledge she’s acquired and pray that the best instincts of her friends will carry them through their challenges. This illness leaves her as the one individual whose ailments prevent her from embracing her new start, lending much of the film a melancholy poignancy, even amid all its comedic happenings. Sadly, the film’s final moments are frustratingly vague as to Muriel’s outcome. It’s as if the filmmakers are refusing to clarify what happens to her in case they need to make a third Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movie and have to rely on Smith’s return to pull in audiences. It’s the film’s only misstep that qualifies as anything major.
Like the first film, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel contains honest reflections on the facts of aging, offering the viewer gentle insights, even as it revels in the sight of geriatric thespians riding motorcycles or dancing complex Indian choreography. It’s a good-spirited film, entertaining without flash or controversy, while ably avoiding boredom and blandness. Watching several elderly British actors cavort around India may no longer be a delightful surprise, but it’s still a pleasure.
7 out of 10
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015, UK)
Directed by John Madden; written by Ol Parker; starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, Tina Desai, Diana Hardcastle, Tamsin Greig, Lillete Dubey, with David Strathairn and Richard Gere.