A kind of Eat Pray Love for the AARP set, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a “surprise hit” only to those who underestimated the appeal of its setup. Here, after all, was a who’s who of distinguished British actors hobnobbing in lively, photogenic India. Was it ageism, or just an ignorance to the popularity of travelogues, that inspired such incredulity? Either way, no one seems to be batting an eye at the existence of this four-years-later sequel, which reunites most of the cast of the original for another crowd-pleasing stroll through Jaipur. One could argue that a return trip to the hotel wasn’t strictly necessary, but checking back in with the residents does support the philosophy of the material—namely, a belief that an ending is just a new beginning. Besides, there’s something heartening about a franchise headlined by a bunch of 60-or-older stars, none of whom were catchphrase-spouting action heroes in their youth.
Aptly enough, one of the main plotlines of this encore installment is a plan to turn the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—a rundown “luxury” establishment for those looking to spend their august years abroad—into a franchise business. Owner and proprietor Sonny, played again with manic comic enthusiasm by Dev Patel, is seeking American investors to help open a second location; inept at multitasking, he’s let his expansion plans distract from his upcoming wedding to Sunaina (Tina Desai). Elsewhere, Sonny’s tenants have romantic issues of their own: The flirtatious Madge (Celia Imrie) juggles two wealthy suitors; aging horndog Norman (Ronald Pickup) grapples with monogamy; and the separated Douglas (Bill Nighy) pines for widow Evelyn (Judi Dench), now mulling a career that would require lots of travel. Also still checked in is the “salty” Muriel (Maggie Smith), who seems to have shed her unfortunate racism but not her penchant for withering asides.
This is typical part-two storytelling, ostensibly giving audiences more of what they liked about the first film, with only minor variations on a successful formula. But working without the guiding framework of source material—the original was based on a novel by Deborah Moggach, but this one isn’t—returning screenwriter Ol Parker sometimes struggles with the ensemble equilibrium. Far too much of the running time is devoted to Sonny’s intersecting dilemmas, his obsession with the friend (Shazad Latif) he fears is after his fiancée and livelihood. In place of Tom Wilkinson, who anchored the most poignant of the original’s subplots, Second offers a dapper Richard Gere, whose divorced writer may or may not be an incognito American inspector come to evaluate the Marigold business model. Gere brings a relaxed charisma to the role, even as his wooing of Sonny’s mother (Lillete Dubey) further clutters up the narrative, leaving less room for the principals to work their magic.
True to its title, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a mildly inferior sequel, diluting the modest charms of its predecessor. Said charms do remain, however. They’re there in the leisurely pace, appropriate for the serialized adventures of retirees learning to live again, and in the everyday splendor of India, a place that director John Madden treats with unwavering awe. (It’s a tourist’s view of the country, but a respectful and admiring one.) Foremost, the Marigold brand—sure to be applied to some third confection, should the second one do as well as the first—guarantees a relatively thoughtful meditation on growing older, albeit one sometimes couched in sitcom sentimentality. It also allows for collisions of British acting royalty, none more delightful than a periodic sparring of the dames—the verbal tête-à-tête between a Downton Abbey countess and James Bond’s one-time superior. There are worse foundations on which to build a franchise.