“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” quipped a character in one rare Hollywood sequel that famously outdid its predecessor. I think this is a piece of wisdom as applicable to movie franchises as it is to superheroes. Riding on the success of a film, filmmakers can either let it bow out with acclaim and dignity or they can drag out its death in sequels that, more often that not, fail to replicate its success. In The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the follow-up to 2011’s sleeper hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, director John Madden takes the latter, unfortunate route.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel picks up where its charming predecessor ended—and this is perhaps its biggest problem. The first movie saw a coterie of retirement-age British men and women land in Jaipur, India, lured by the promise of a “luxurious retreat for the elderly”; upon arrival, they discover that the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is nothing but a shabby inn run by a hyper-exuberant young manager, Sonny (Dev Patel). The seven English characters all arrive in India with baggage, both literal and metaphorical. As they struggle to adjust to their newfound surroundings, they also struggle to rediscover identity and purpose in the twilight years of their life.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel concludes with a “happily ever after.” By the end of the movie, the characters have all made themselves at home and found freedom, friendship, purpose, and love. They have traversed and reached the end of their character arcs. To continue this exhausted narrative poses a challenge for the sequel. Screenwriter Ol Parker tries to make it work by stretching out the few unresolved plot points from the original film. When this proves inadequate, he is forced to introduce insubstantial subplots that complicate the plot unnecessarily.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel opens in San Diego, where Sonny and Muriel (a wonderfully caustic Maggie Smith) are seeking funding from Evergreen, an international retirement home franchise, so Sonny can purchase another hotel in Jaipur. Sonny’s business ambitions distract his attention from his upcoming wedding, much to the chagrin of his fiancée Sunaina (Tena Desae). In what is perhaps the most inane plot device in the movie, Sunaina’s hunky friend Kushal arrives to help with the wedding and, in Sonny’s mind, threatens to steal his fiancée and his business. Sonny’s skirmishes with Kushal feel rather immature and contrived. It doesn’t help that Patel’s excessive exuberance and verbosity, endearing in the first film, are now simply annoying.
Back in the hotel, residents Evelyn and Douglas (played by Judi Dench and Bill Nighy) grow closer, but neither of them possesses the courage to make a move. Their shy chemistry is one of the highlights of the film, brought to life by their affecting and restrained performances. However, their relationship deadlock drags on far too long to retain interest.
At the other end of the romance spectrum, resident Casanova Norman (Ronald Pickup) and his girlfriend Carol (Diana Hardcastle) struggle with monogamy, while Madge (Celia Imrie) is caught in a love triangle involving two wealthy, older men who wish to marry her. These subplots are poorly developed and feel as if they’ve been hastily tacked on to the movie to give the actors something to do.
Matters are further complicated by entry of the silver-haired Richard Gere as Guy Chambers, a self-proclaimed writer, who falls for Sonny’s widowed mother (Lillete Dubey). Sonny is convinced that Chambers is an undercover hotel inspector sent by Evergreen, and he goes to great lengths—which include “pimping out” his own mother—to win his favor.
As you might have gathered, The Second Best Marigold Hotel has so many characters and storylines competing for attention that the viewer doesn’t feel invested in any of them. Director John Madden attempts to give the film a semblance of cohesion by structuring it around the three parts of Sonny and Sunaina’s colorful North Indian wedding. While the wedding does provide loose structure as well as some festive musical sequences, it also adds a number of inessential elements, such as Sonny’s pre-wedding anxiety, that clutter the narrative even more.
To be fair, The Second Best Marigold Hotel does have its strong moments. The sweeping, Bollywood-infused score by Thomas Newman injects the film with the tempo that the plot lacks, and there are a few shots of urban India—in particular, a couple of crane shots of the brightly lit Mumbai shoreline—that are stunning. For many, the main attraction of the film is watching the impressive cast of veteran British actors come together on screen and create magic. The actors do not disappoint. With some wonderfully understated performances, they offer a candid look at the existential crises that accompany aging. However, even a stellar cast can’t elevate the platitudinous dialogue and recycled jokes about death (“The hotel is full, with nobody checking out … until the ultimate checkout!), and the few high points of the film are lost in a cliché-ridden script weighed down by lack of substance.