Second Best is right. One of the more unlikely sequels to come out this year – and one of the more ungainly titles – is proud to be little more than a continuation of events in the lives of characters established in the first movie.
Only problem: too many characters, and too few events.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (that just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) comes with high pedigree, however, bringing back original scribe Ol Parker, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), and most of the original cast members, including impeccable Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench.
The first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel followed a group of elderly British senior citizens (which included Smith, Dench, Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkinson) who retire at the titular Indian hotel run by an energetic young proprietor (Dev Patel).
Second Best more or less picks up where the first film left off, following each of the characters (and a few new ones) through a new series of events. The only subtraction is Tom Wilkinson’s character, who is no longer around (a shame – his story in the original was the one with the most merit).
Let the parade of insignificant plot threads begin.
Second Best opens as proprietor Sonny (Patel) and cantankerous Muriel (Smith) visit Las Vegas to meet with hotel tycoon Ty Burley (David Strathairn) and pitch their idea of retirement hotels for the elderly. Smith can do this kind of thing in her sleep – and is at her best while dozing off here. Her two scenes with Strathairn’s straight-shooter are the best the film has to offer.
Then there’s Sonny’s impending marriage to Sunaina (Tina Desai), which is complicated by the arrival of Sunaina’s brother’s best friend and dance instructor Kushal (Shazad Latif) – who also happens to be Sonny’s long-time adversary.
Dench and Nighy are back in action, too. Nighy’s Douglas is in love with Dench’s Evelyn, who seems to be more hesitant about their relationship after taking a fabric-sourcing job that requires a lot of travelling. Lightweight fluff, but I liked the resolution to their story.
Also returning to the film are Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Madge (Celia Imrie), who hooked up during the previous film. This time around, Norman struggles with fidelity… and may have even taken out a hit on Madge? Gosh!
Then there’s the new guest Guy Chambers, played by Richard Gere. Sonny is sure he’s the hotel inspector sent by the potential American investors, but is he really? And what about the hotel’s other new guest, Lavinia (Tamsin Greig)? I dare not spoil the film’s big climactic Hotel Inspector Revelation scene, though you’ll see it coming a mile away.
I was surprised to learn that Gere is actually slightly older than Nighy, though both are younger than Dench and Smith by 15 years. The rest of the characters are spoken for – and we don’t expect to see Gere and Smith get together – so that paves the way for an unlikely romance with Sonny’s mother (Lillete Dubey, who also looks younger than she actually is).
None of these storylines are at all substantial, but the film seems to go on forever (it clocks in at just over two hours) and climaxes with a big fat Indian wedding scene that tries to distract us from the fact that nothing of interest has occurred throughout the entire movie.
Still, the proceedings have an amiable feel to them, and fans of the original – which wasn’t exactly a classic – should appreciate a return to these characters. With any other cast, this thing would be a complete dud, but the talent involved helps make The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel at least tolerable – though, failing the Siskel Test, I’d rather watch them eat lunch than sleepwalk through this utterly formulaic material.