Naming the sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel probably didn’t cause any headaches or sleepless nights. There’s no unsightly numeral at the end, but the film’s follow-up status is still made clear, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel saying everything a movie title needs to say. It's the same older folks getting up to the same old tricks.
The film opens in the United States, the perpetually cranky Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) and always-eager Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) trying to convince an American company to fund their expansion plans; however, that’s just window dressing. Soon they return to Jaipur, to their home away from home for more mature travellers, and to the recognisable faces of their long-term residents. Everyone’s problems may be new, be it a job offer, romantic entanglements, health ailments, impressing a hotel inspector, fending off rivals or preparing for impending nuptials, but there’s nothing different about the dynamic.
Indeed, anyone who has seen the first movie — or anything any of the high-profile ensemble cast have ever been in — already knows exactly how everyone behaves, and how everything plays out. As will-they-or-won’t-they couple Evelyn and Douglas, Judi Dench is wise and cautious, and Bill Nighy is equal parts charming and sweet, their relationship never in doubt. Lust drives Celia Imrie’s Madge and Ronald Pickup’s Norman into their own silly side-character subplots steeped in matters of the heart. When Richard Gere arrives as the visitor assumed to hold the fate of the new hotel in his hands, he’s as suave and dreamy as he’s ever been on film, and there’s a woman nearby to fall under his spell.
These soap-like, sitcom-style antics, and Sonny’s in coping with the competing demands of running a growing business and getting married, ensure much of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel plays out like a subcontinent-set episode of Fawlty Towers. Sadly, missing is the wit and satire that made the TV series such a comedy gem. Instead, the laughs here come from familiarity and predictability, rather than any real comic impulses by returning director John Madden and second-time scribe Ol Parker.
Part of what endeared The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to audiences — old more so than young — was the late-stage coming-of-age story mixed with an elderly-but-not-out attitude. Both came dripping with sentimentality and packaged as a glossy travelogue, but the movie struck a chord more often than not, and not just because of its immensely pleasant performers. That’s exactly what The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel attempts, but the feel-good strengths of the first film just don’t stretch that far. Instead, cheesiness and cliches fill in the gaps, including the obligatory dance sequences, lest viewers forget there’s an Indian wedding thrown in as well.