Filmmaking isn't arithmetic, and those who approach it as such are generally to be avoided. That said, there do on occasion exist equations that are not to be trifled with. Take, for example, the algebraic logic underlying The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the sequel to 2012’s surprise hit, which might be summarized as (Judi Dench + Bill Nighy + Maggie Smith) x screenwriter Ol Parker x director John Madden. Is it possible that this formula could produce an unsatisfying product? There were moments during the sequel, I confess, when I feared it might. But ultimately, the assembled talent and wistful charm won out.
The movie follows in the wake of its predecessor, in which a motley group of English retirees rediscovered themselves following a move to a pensioner's hotel in India. The new installment opens in broad but likable farce: Sonny (Dev Patel), the proprietor of the original hotel, and Muriel (Maggie Smith), his skeptical tenant-turned-partner visit San Diego to take a meeting about the possible expansion of their franchise to a second venue.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the salty hilarity of Muriel, the corporate executive receiving their pitch (a sadly underutilized David Strathairn) promises to consider the proposal, and hints that he will send someone incognito to assess the current property and its management. It's little wonder that when a handsome stranger named Guy Chambers (played by Richard Gere) shows up at the (original) Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, he is presumed to be that someone.
Meanwhile, Sonny and his fiancée, Sunaina (Tena Desae), are preparing for their wedding, though bumpily so. A handsome friend (Shazad Latif) has returned to town and appears—to Sonny at least—to be a competitor both for Sunaina’s affections and for the additional property Sonny hopes to acquire.
There are several other “meanwhiles” on offer as well—too many, in fact, and for the most part too derivative of what has come before. The quiet courtship between Douglas (Nighy) and Evelyn (Dench) that formed the emotional core of the first film is ongoing; Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Carol (Diana Hardcastle) suffer their own romantic misunderstandings; man-eater Madge (Celia Imrie) can't decide where best to direct her appetite; and Douglas’s estranged wife, Jean (Penelope Wilton), visits from England to once again bestow her bone-deep dissatisfaction with life. It's perhaps ungenerous to say of the rare film featuring a mostly senior cast, but this is a sequel that could have used new blood, or at least new situations.
Richard Gere might have been the answer, were it not for the compromising fact that he is Richard Gere. Though perfectly capable, he brings with him a waft of such overpowering American rom-com-ness that he destabilizes nearly every scene he is in. One half expects Julia Roberts to show up in a bathtub, or in her running shoes.
No, the chief pleasures here are the most familiar ones: The tart tongue of Smith (on her trip to America: “I went with low expectations and came back disappointed”); the gravitational pull of Dench’s charisma; the humanism and bottomless likability of Nighy (“The great horror of life is that there’s just so much bloody potential”); the infectious exuberance of Patel.
Like so many unplanned sequels, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel finds itself in the catch-22 of trying to recreate the circumstances of its predecessor’s success without merely recapitulating them. Whether or not it ultimately succeeds will depend on how individual viewers weigh the movie’s narrative flaws against the profound appeal of its stars and setting. For my part, it was a reminder that sometimes second best is good enough.