Honestly, when a sequel is called "Second Best" the joke is just right there, waiting. And so when it turns out that "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is, in fact, a lesser follow-up to its surprise 2012 hit predecessor, it tests one's sense of restraint not to go right for the obvious puns.
It was often noted that "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," about a group of British retirees living in India, was like an aging "Avengers" for the way it brought together an all-star cast of acting talent. In this sequel, the director inadvertently continues that inside joke by making something that feels obligatory and cobbled together like a late franchise entry. The film has only the sheer charm of its cast to get it by, and it says a lot about the actors that they nearly pull it off.
Muriel (Maggie Smith) is co-managing the hotel with the more enthusiastic than wise Sonny (Dev Patel), and as the film opens the two are attempting to expand in partnership with an American company. Evelyn (Judi Dench) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) are tentatively forging a relationship together while the romantic complications of their other neighbors swirl around them. New to the mix is Richard Gere as a charmingly mysterious Richard Gere-type, a soulful silver fox.
The first "Best Exotic" film was adapted from the novel "These Foolish Things"; the new film has the unwieldy credit of "characters created in Deborah Moggach's original novel." The screen story is credited to Madden and Ol Parker with the screenplay by Parker. So in a sense the new film is fan fiction of the original from the start, akin to later James Bond films when producers had run out of original stories to adapt.
This could explain why the characters all seem to be flailing about, unsure of what to do. Dench often seems to wander alone through the film in what is intended as a series of missed connections with Nighy's character but plays more like some kind of scheduling issue they were trying to work around.
The first film had some basis in the idea of retirees outsourcing their retirements to India, looking to stretch whatever money they had. This gave the story a grounded connection to the here-and-now, which the new film sorely lacks. David Strathairn, as head of an elder-focused chain of hotels who is a potential partner, is underutilized, as is any implied tension between small boutique hotels and larger chains.
Shot in the northern state of Rajasthan, it's not even that the film is patronizing to the Indian locations and culture — it just sort of ignores them, aside from background colors, boisterous parties and funny cab rides. By the time it all ends, predictably, with a faux Bollywood-style dance number, even the goofy kick of seeing Richard Gere doing air guitar has been muted. The first "Exotic Marigold" was like a pleasant package vacation, delivering solid and reliable service, but this return feels like a trip that's gone on too long.
'The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel'
MPAA rating: PG for some language and suggestive comments
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: In general release