In the summer of 2012, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a welcome relief from the usual shoot-‘em-up, blow-‘em-up movies that fill the schedule. The story of a group of elderly Britons moving to India was charming, and a showcase for a cast full of the best British actors over the age of sixty. Now John Madden and Ol Parker, the original’s director and screenwriter respectively, have reassembled their cast, added a couple of bonuses, and brought forth a sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
The movie begins with hotel owner Sonny (Dev Patel) and his manager Muriel (Maggie Smith) on a trip to California to seek a partnership with a hotel chain run by Ty Burley (David Straitharn). Parker knows enough not to tinker with the original characters so Muriel is as opinionated and curmudgeonly as in the original movie. Her dissection of how Americans make hot tea is almost worth the movie ticket by itself, and when she’s later asked how the trip was, she responds, “I went with low expectations – I was disappointed.” Burley promises to send an inspector to check out the proposal and if they’re satisfied, he’ll invest.
The rest of the survivors of the first movie are there for Sonny’s morning roll call: Evelyn (Judi Dench), who’s pursuing a new career as a fabric purchaser; Douglas (Bill Nighy), now separated from his wife Jean (Penelope Wilton) but hopeful for a second chance at love; the amorous Marge (Celia Imrie) who is pursuing two wealthy men at the same time; rakish rogue Norman (Roland Pickup), still with Carol (Diana Hardcastle) whom he met during the first movie; and also Sonny’s fiancée, Sunaina (Tina Desai) who’s now working with him as they prepare for the wedding. Soon though, new arrivals upset the balance, including an American looking to write a novel (Richard Gere).
The main thread of the story is Sonny and Sunaina’s nuptials, which breaks the story into three acts, but wound into it is Sonny’s seeking to expand his success as an hotelier. This is a bit contrived, especially a mistaken identity subplot that has Sonny acting even more crazy than normal. Still, the machinations manage to be both funny and poignant at times. Another story line involving Norman begins as a farce but leads to a heartfelt moment. However, the rest of the film has a number of moments that sparkle like diamonds. It’s like sitting in for a master class on film acting taught by consummate professionals. Even though he has only two short scenes, Straitharn matches the rest of the cast with a memorable characterization that etches itself into your memory.
The movie also benefits from being in turn laugh-out-loud funny and get-out-your-hankies poignant. Madden and Parker trust the audience enough to leave some things implied rather than beating the audience over the head with the script, which is a pleasant difference from much of the Hollywood fare. Madden’s camera captures India beautifully, so that it feels both exotic as well as completely familiar. They do follow the convention of India cinema by having an extensive and extravagant musical dance at the end, with Dench, Gere et al participating.
In some ways the title is unfortunate, having “Second Best” as part of it. It may not be the complete delight of the original; having that lightning strike twice would be too much to ask for or expect. But it does come so very, very close to the first movie that fans of the original will not be disappointed.