If nothing else, John Madden’s seniors-on-the-subcontinent sequel The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel should win a truth-in-advertising award. Because it is, in fact, the second-best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Which isn’t to say that the new film isn’t sweet and funny and winning…it’s all of those things. With Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench lobbing wickedly bitchy verbal grenades back and forth, how could it not be? But it’s also predictable, corny, and mild. It’s the kind of movie that provides a perfect answer for when your mother or grandmother calls you up and asks, “What should I go see with the girls after our weekly canasta game?”
When the first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel came out three years ago, it was a revelation. Not so much the movie itself, which spun a harmlessly agreeable tale about retirees who travel to India to spice up their Centrum years, but more what it represented. It was a reminder of a perennially underserved moviegoing demographic that gets rediscovered every decade or so with films like Cocoon and Driving Miss Daisy. After all, here was a movie that didn’t treat aging as a curse or a crime, but as a time in life that might offer a last chance for adventure, meaning, and perhaps even romance. Getting older didn’t have to be an end, it could be a new beginning. It was a surprise hit. A follow-up was inevitable.
As the new film opens, the Marigold’s chirpily obsequious owner, Sonny (Dev Patel), and his quipping comanager, Muriel (Smith), arrive in San Diego, where Sonny hopes to persuade the head of a retirement-hotel chain (David Strathairn) to invest in his expansion plans for a second Marigold while Muriel gets to roll her eyes at the California weather and scoff at the perverse American notion of what constitutes a proper cup of tea. Strathairn closes the meeting with the promise of sending an undercover representative to India to check out Sonny’s operation and determine the potential of his business plan.
Back in Jaipur, Sonny’s fiancée (Tina Desai) is busily preparing for their upcoming wedding party. But the ambitious groom-to-be is too busy sniffing around for Strathairn’s spy to focus on the festivities. And when Richard Gere shows up with a thick mane of silver-fox hair and a suitcase full of linen shirts, Sonny knows he’s the one and bends over backward to make sure his stay is perfect, even going so far as to set him up with his mother (Lillete Dubey). Meanwhile, another new arrival (Tamsin Greig), whom Sonny ignores, may be the real inspector. Episodes of Three’s Company have been built on sturdier premises.
Of course, none of that is why anyone is going to see The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (I pity the poor multiplex employee who has to squeeze all those words on a marquee). What we’re interested in is the hotel’s roll call of quirky permanent guests: Smith’s Muriel, Dench’s Evelyn, Bill Nighy’s Douglas, and the rest of the golden girls and gents who are on the shady side of 70. We want to lose ourselves in their soapy high jinks again and see how their exotic retirement is treating them. For the most part, the answer is “very well.” They’re busier and bawdier than ever, not to mention as hungry for love as a Bachelor contestant. Who says the whippersnappers have all the fun? B–