by David Robinson, Movie reviewer
Sequels to popular films are a dicey business: only rarely does the attempt to capture the appeal of the original succeed. In the case of “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” now available on DVD, the result is, well, second best. It’s not a bad film, exactly, but it’s a mediocre one.
Its ordinariness is a bit surprising, given the stellar cast reassembled for the second go round. Only Tom Wilkinson — whose character died in the first iteration — is missing, but Brit veterans Judith Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, and Diana Hardcastle remain, and they are bolstered by Americans David Strathairn and Richard Gere.Director John Madden and his co-screenwriter Ol Parker team up again to extend the story line and the characters’ lives, if not especially their development.
Indeed, part of the pleasure of the “Second Best” depends upon one’s familiarity with the people on screen. Originally, most of the major characters are English retirees who are trying to live out their lives on diminished means by escaping to Jaipur, India. There, the new owner of a rundown hotel, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), promises them a life of ease at budget rates, a promise he only partially and inconsistently delivers on. Some of the charm of that film derives from the characters’ introduction — and thus ours — to the color, pageantry, and people of India, which Holland and cinematographer Ben Davis capture without turning the story into a travelogue with a plot.
In “Second Best,” the problem is too many plots. The main one features Sonny and his permanent guest/business partner Muriel Donnelly (Smith) attempting to expand Sonny’s business by buying and refurbishing another wreck of a hotel. Improbably enough, they travel to San Diego to appeal for funding by a company whose CEO (Strathairn) tells them they will have to pass an inspection by an anonymous company employee who will report back to him on the condition and service of the current hotel.
Upon their return, Sonny and fiancée Sunaina (Tina Desai) have to start planning their wedding, with all the attendant pressures. (The plot arc covers three parties: engagement, family, and wedding, the latter featuring the inevitable, overdone Big Bollywood Dance Number.) The tension ratchets up with the appearance of one Guy Chambers (Gere), who claims to be a novelist but whom Sonny sniffs out as the undercover hotel inspector. One more twist comes when Chambers begins wooing Sonny’s beautiful widowed mother (Lillette Dubey), with Sonny’s encouragement, despite her suspicion that he is “pimping her out.”
The other romances — I lost count — carry on, each of them given an aggregate of about seven minutes of screen time, Madden dashing back and forth among them, so that we lose track of who is chasing or bedding whom, the senior citizens refusing to act their age. Each of the principals is given his or her set piece, a small speech to air their hopes and losses. They do it well enough: this is a wonderful assemblage of actors, after all. However, only Smith gets consistently good lines, her acerbic delivery calling to mind her delightful work in “Downton Abbey.” (Her foil there, Penelope Wilton, appears in a cameo here.)
Patel, in contrast, is way too far over the top with Sonny, whom he plays as something of a naïf. We literally can’t believe that he can run even a low-rent hotel or succeed with the gorgeous Sunaina. Gere does his handsome leading man thing so sleepily that we worry if something in the food got to him. The minor Indian characters are merely there to strut and fret around the majors, so they rarely absorb us, more’s the pity.
“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” tries hard to please, even supplying multiple happy endings. It’s rated “PG” with only some mild innuendo which will not upset the aging target audience. (I speak as one of them.) Not to spoil the ending, but Sonny realizes his dream. I’m hoping that he and the filmmakers stop at two.