It’s fair to say that pretty much nobody, not even the most optimistic of its cast members, expected 2012’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” to do as well as it did. A charming and lightweight ensemble film about a group of British retirees setting up camp and forming a surrogate family in an old-age hotel in India doesn’t exactly scream box-office gold. Yet its worldwide gross topped $135 million.
Moral of the story: Never underestimate the appeal of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench.
That incomparable cast of seasoned thespians returns for a sequel, their characters still rejoicing in, and building on, the second life they’ve discovered in India. It’s a bigger and flashier film than the first; there’s dancing, music, flirting and a spectacle of a wedding to plan. But as the axiom goes, bigger isn’t always better, and “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” it turns out, is a little too apt a title.
The first Marigold Hotel was such a success that Sonny (Dev Patel), the hotel’s enthusiastic and eager-to-please manager, is looking to expand his unique retirement concept and open a second hotel. That plan becomes complicated by the arrival of Guy (Richard Gere, adding a bit of American spice to the mix), a visiting writer. Sonny is convinced that Guy actually is a hotel inspector and thus holds the key to making his dream a reality.
Further complicating Sonny’s future is the arrival of a rather dashing and rich old friend — and dance coach — who hits it off a little too well with his nimble fiancee. These intertwined Sonny plots are the film’s main narrative through line, and they are among the flimsiest — nothing that a few simple conversations and not acting like a complete jackass couldn’t have solved.
The same goes for Norman’s (Ronald Pickup) plot. He is convinced that he’s accidentally hired a hit on his girlfriend, Carol (Diana Hardcastle), and spends the length of the movie tailing her and making an exaggerated fool of himself. These are sitcom plots, and the stakes are considerably pettier than in the film’s predecessor.
Thankfully, not all story lines are as thin. Douglas and Evelyn (Bill Nighy and Dench) yearn to begin a relationship now that Douglas is separated from his wife, but neither knows how to navigate such sticky emotional terrain. Madge (Celia Imrie), the hotel’s resident flirt, is juggling a pair of rich Indian suitors when her feelings become complicated by a friendship with her driver. And Muriel (Smith, as always, a treasure) grapples with her impending mortality.
When those plotlines are in focus, the sequel feels less like a cash grab and more like an organic extension of these characters’ stories. And there are still plenty of sensory delights to indulge in; India is breathtaking on film, and the colors, textures and music of the country pop with pleasure. It is a movie that looks and feels luscious.
It’s asked in the film, “How many new lives can we have?” The answer, it turns, is however many we want. And as long as Dench, Smith, Nighy and Imrie stick around, the same probably is true of “Marigold” movies.
‘The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’
3 stars (out of 5)
Director: John Madden.
Cast: Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Richard Gere, Bill Nighy.
Rating: PG for some language and suggestive comments.
Reach the reporter at barbara.vandenburgh@arizonarepublic or 602-444-8371. Twitter.com/BabsVan.