You cannot enter “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” cold. You must have seen the hit 2012 film from which it springs for this sequel to make sense.
“Second” does not recap the backstories of the British retiree characters – played by Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and others – living at a charming hotel for seniors in Jaipur, India.
The film assumes the same level of viewer familiarity with its franchise that makers of comic-book blockbusters do theirs. Perhaps that’s because the first “Marigold Hotel” was, to the age-50-and-older moviegoers who helped push the $10 million movie to a $136 million worldwide box office haul, what Marvel films are to 16-year-olds.
That is to say, irresistible, and review-proof, in singular or serial form. So here goes nothing.
“Second,” like its predecessor, is warmhearted, well-acted and attuned to the continued vitality and curiosity among the 60-plus crowd. The film improves on its predecessor in being less culturally condescending. But it also lacks its dramatic thrust.
The first film detailed the adjustment period of pensioners who came to India to find adventure and/or cheaper living. This adjustment involved assaults on olfactory senses, via big public markets, and on digestive tracts, via the hotel’s cook.
At one point, the biggest pearl-clutcher among them (Penelope Wilton) asked a more adventurous Englishman (Tom Wilkinson) to explain India’s appeal. He told her India held beautiful light and endless possibility. He thus allowed 1.25 billion Indians to breathe easier, knowing that at least one person from the country that colonized theirs remains fond of India.
The hotel residents’ doubts about India no longer linger when “Second” starts, with the characters from the first film (minus Wilkinson’s, who died) happily ensconced at the hotel. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel now enjoys such success that its proprietor, Sonny (Dev Patel), and hotel co-manager/resident Mrs. Donnelly (Smith), travel to San Diego to urge an American company specializing in senior living to help them acquire a second hotel in Jaipur.
Smith’s sharp wit and withering delivery are so like those of her Countess on “Downton Abbey” that she’s Mrs. Donnelly in name only here. Smith is part of the reason a refresher course on the first film is needed: There’s little continuity from “Marigold Hotel,” in which her character was fearful of change, xenophobic and from a lower socioeconomic tier than her fellow hotel residents.
Mrs. Donnelly overcame her prejudices in the first film, so their absence is explained. The absence of her slight Cockney accent is not. Smith Countess-ifying her character does not make her any less interesting to watch, though.
The retirees’ embrace of India, and a resulting lack of transformative experiences, diminish the dramatic possibilities in “Second.” So it’s no wonder the film assumes a time-filling quality midway through, when it starts offering two scenes of the same nature when one would do.
You don’t recognize this until film’s end, because there are so many pleasant visual diversions: gorgeous shots of dramatic hilltops and distinctive architecture.
Screenwriter Ol Parker (back from the first film, along with director John Madden) compensates for a lack of movement in the retirees’ stories by funneling most of the film’s narrative energy into Sonny. And Sonny can be a bit much.
Patel crafted a rich character in his breakout film, “Slumdog Millionaire.” Sonny, in “Exotic Marigold,” was more caricature than character, an effusive young man whom some might call a dreamer and others a liar, since his hotel was not what he advertised.
Still, he was sweet and solicitous. In “Second,” Sonny seems agitated-bordering-on-manic as he tries to fend off the handsome entrepreneur Kushal (Shazad Latif), whom Sonny views as a business and romantic rival.
Kushal, a family friend of Sonny’s fiancée (Tina Desai), is helping the fiancée practice for her wedding dance with Sonny. This story thread offers a thinly veiled excuse for a Bollywood-style dance scene of a kind common to Western films set in India and out of ideas.
Sonny is expecting an anonymous inspector from the American company. When Guy (Richard Gere) arrives to check in at the hotel, Sonny believes Guy is that inspector. Sonny caters to Guy while ignoring another new guest (Tamsin Greig, who radiates intelligence and an Emma Thompson vibe here, as she does on Showtime’s “Episodes”) who says she’s scouting the place on behalf of her English mother.
It’s taken this long into the review to mention an American star’s appearance in “Second” because Gere moves with such ease within the film. He does not appear to want to stand out from the ensemble, in the same way Guy balks at Sonny fawning over him. Guy receives more attention from Sonny than from even the husband-hungry Madge (Celia Imrie, cheeky as ever as the British Blanche Devereaux), who notes the silver fox’s good looks but otherwise behaves.
The “Marigold Hotel” films already had a resident heartthrob in Nighy. The biggest pleasure of the first film lay in the budding romance between Nighy’s elegant, wry retired civil servant, Douglas, and Dench’s recently widowed character, Evelyn.
Though now fully allowed to bloom because Douglas’ pill of a wife (Wilton) has returned to England, the romance in “Second” still is budding, as it happens. He’s ardent but she’s resistant – and that resistance represents one of the truer-to-life aspects of this story.
It can be hard to try to love again at an advanced age, even when one wants to. The lovely, radiant Dench shows Evelyn’s desire and fear warring within her, all while maintaining a calm expression. Spoiler alert: Dench can act.
The lengthening of the pair’s romantic gestation period warms my soap-opera heart until it lasts too long, becoming another time filler.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL
Cast: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Dev Patel, Richard Gere
Director: John Madden
Rated PG (some language and suggestive comments)