Not Much Reason To Return To This 'Hotel'
After The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a comedy about a group of British pensioners who take an eccentric travel package to Jaipur, India, became a surprise hit in 2012, we now have a return trip. The most admirable thing about The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the nose-thumbing delight it takes in turning counterprogramming for seniors into a Hangover-like franchise with legs. Why make another one? Well, maybe because Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, and Maggie Smith wanted another trip to India, and Richard Gere wanted to pay a visit, and the movie is giving them lead roles instead of shoving them into the token-elder corner, and isn't that reason enough?
Maybe for them, but director John Madden's return to this quirky destination "for the elderly and beautiful" doesn't give the rest of us much incentive to check in. The film follows Sonny (Dev Patel), the Best Exotic's ambitious proprietor with a penchant for jumbling English sayings ("There's no present like the time"), as he attempts to expand his hospitality franchise. Sonny is the only character given any forward momentum: His now-permanent guests, having attained enlightenment in the first film, seem so aware of their borrowed time that they're reluctant to find more character flaws for India to fix.
The poster couple, widow Evelyn (Dench) and unhappily married Douglas (Nighy), were together at the first film's conclusion; yet here, their relationship status is back to Facebook-complicated. Lovebirds Norman and Carol (Ronald Pickup and Diana Hardcastle) are killing time with screwball misunderstandings. Madge (Celia Imrie), a frisky single who will make a pass at any man glancing her way, tries to settle down. And Muriel (Smith), the reformed racist turned co-manager of the hotel, putters around making wisecracks. Gere, as a shifty new arrival named Guy, may or may not be an undercover inspector sent by a potential investor. But either way, he's Pretty Woman heartthrob Richard Gere in a popcorn movie for the AARP set, and his tired performance reflects this.
Even in the pit of its formula, the first Exotic Marigold achieved moments of poignancy by asking two giant questions: (1) Is it possible to live out one's golden years with reinvigoration and good humor, and (2) What is the culturally responsible way to travel to an unfamiliar country? Madden and his co-screenwriter, Ol Parker, applied pressure to Merchant-Ivory road pictures, while still making the film a straightforward crowd-pleaser.
Second Best, which Parker also scripted, comes closest to rekindling this spirit during a brief Mumbai getaway. Evelyn, offered an executive job with a fabric company at the age of 79, has to show she's aware enough to haggle with India's best capitalists. Reappearing is Douglas's estranged wife Jean (the wonderfully acid Penelope Wilton), who became the franchise heel by refusing to engage with the surrounding culture. She's staying in the posh accommodations she always wanted, the kind of hotel conceived to homogenize travel for people like her (there's a funny wide shot of her lounging in the glass-encased lobby). It's a welcome deviation from Western entertainment's penchant for smirking at foreign dirt.
The Mumbai passage exists at odds with a litany of poor decisions, chief among them an expanded role for Sonny. Patel's performance in this series, with his exaggerated accent, wild gesticulations, and eager entrepreneurialism, is the stuff of sociology classes – is he subverting stereotypes, or encouraging them? But either way, the character is obnoxious. He treats most of his guests with contempt, is openly hostile to his mother (a big no-no for this movie's intended audience), and has more chemistry with the self-portrait that hangs above his front desk than he does with his gorgeous fiancé (Tina Desai). Their wedding plans feature prominently into the story, which demands Sonny's unearned late-period redemption. An Indian fusion dance sequence is our reward for slogging through this test of patience.
Good on the Marigold team for creating unlikely franchise fare, and for resisting the temptation to coddle the mystique of their "exotic" setting. But any fear of cultural imperialism has been replaced with imperialism of dullness. Idea for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: Third Charm's The Time: Since there has to be a formula anyway, just make a Bollywood musical starring Britain's finest. That, at least, could be fun to watch.
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