Despite invaluable press junkets and promotion, it is a very rare sequel – call it, the unicorn – that can top, much less rival its predecessor. Case in point: John Madden’s aptly titled ‘second best’ 2015 follow-up to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) - even more astutely referenced by film critic, Wesley Morris as ‘mortis interruptus’ - since it neither triumphs over the adversities and obstructions set up for its protagonists in the screenplay, co-authored by Madden and Ol Parker, nor does it come anywhere near to recapture the lithe and intangible effervescence the original had in spades. While the first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel soared, largely on the ether of its inimitable ‘feel good’; the sequel merely devolves into an enviably obtuse ‘plug-n-play’ of its surviving stock company to a new set of crises in the advancing twilight of their years; the original movie’s double entendre positivism, best embodied in a saying put forth by hotel manager, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) – “we have a saying in India…everything will be alright in the end…so if it isn’t alright, then perhaps it isn’t the end” – now, completely subverted in the sequel; as one of the best beloved of these ceremonial old crocs, co-manager, Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) is placed in imminent peril.
Where to begin with the misfires: perhaps, chiefly with the introduction of Richard Gere, meant to replace the original film’s Tom Wilkinson (as though anyone could) as hotel inspector, Guy Chambers – the ‘ugly American’ thrust upon this Brit-dominated social hierarchy as its proverbial ‘fish out of water’. Gere is incapable of being anything less genuine than himself; though, arguably, not much more besides. Chambers is a no-nothing part anyway; superficially plumbed for its geriatric eye-candy which ruthlessly runs thin. But I must say, compared to the overall haggard appearance of the rest of this cast, Gere could almost pull off his ‘American Gigolo: Part II’ and come off the cropper. However, it is a colossal mistake to take a gutsy determinist like Maggie Smith’s Muriel Donnelly and place her on the verge of succumbing from one of those undisclosed Hollywood illnesses? Part of the issue I had with this sequel was its’ decided shift away from the emeritus crowd, made subservient appendages to the trials and tribulations of Sonny and Sunaina (Tin Desai) – their wedding quandaries devolving into a Bollywood-style musical revue to cap off the climax.
At every turn, director, Madden maddened me by steering clear of virtually every endearing quality that made the first feature such a charmer; this sequel’s unwieldy plot, frequently careening much too far off point; relegating the burgeoning romance between Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) and Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy) (the couple, arguably one of the pivotal involvements from the original movie) to mere bit players this time around, faced with two dilemmas (she gets a career/his shrew of a wife, played by Penelope Wilton, momentarily returns). Furthermore the point of transformation; Madden has inexplicably monogamized randy ole sod, Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) while simultaneously transforming his fragile paramour, Carol Parr (Diana Hardcastle) into a twenty cent tart, shacking up with multiple partners, simply because she assumes he is doing the same. The role of the trollop in the first movie belonged to Celia Imrie as Madge Hardcastle – a wily grandma with a decidedly roving eye – be still her beating ovaries, indeed!). But The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015) doesn’t give the ole crotch-jockey much playtime – literally or figuratively – and rather denies the audience an opportunity to wallow in both the virtues and vices of this formidable senior ensemble. It just placates us with more of the same.
Yet, perhaps the greatest transgression of all is Dev Patel’s exuberant Sonny Kapoor, now turned into something of a preening peacock and martinet. In the first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Sonny was charismatic, precisely because his, as yet, unformed and even more uninformed ambitions (to become a successful proprietor of a hotel for the aged) were nevertheless firmly grounded in an ancestral spirit to succeed where his beloved father had failed; to prove himself to his mother (Lillette Dubey), Sunaina and her rather austere brother, Jay (Sid Makkar), but most importantly, to satisfy his own insatiable inner need to know the strength of his own self-worth and convictions through hard work and accomplishment. Sonny’s repeated failures at the beginning of the first movie were comedic tragedy; his penultimate triumph at its’ end, despite seemingly insurmountable roadblocks along the way, nothing less than a crowd-cheering exaltation of ‘the little dynamo that could’. Alas, in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Sonny is a little too drunk on his own self-importance to care about raising anyone else’s level of satisfaction. Add untoward and totally unfounded jealousy into this mix (Sonny thinks his childhood ‘friend’, Kushal, played with harmless aplomb by Shazad Latif, is horning in, both on his relationship and his professional plans for expansion into a franchise of hotels) and Sonny Kapoor is not a very likeable figure in this sequel; a shame, since it is basically his story we are being told, and, with whom we are expected to place all of our empathy and compassion.
Concentrating the sequel on its younger stars, rather defeats the purpose of having such heavy-hitters as Maggie Smith and Judi Dench headlining the picture – except, of course, to promote it with all the gentility and warmth ascribed one’s favorite pair of bedroom slippers. Sadly, neither Smith nor Dench are ever given the opportunity to act. Smith fares marginally better in this regard, primarily because her administrator’s role in the first Marigold Hotel intrinsically links her meandering storyline to Sonny’s latest venture; one, he confoundedly is determined to, in tandem, embrace yet purposelessly defeat while suffering from social inadequacies already dealt with in the first movie, and therefore ought to have been matured and/or strengthened to advance his character forward in this sequel. Instead, Sonny takes three steps back – very much more the spoiled child than the burgeoning adult male capable of taking care of Sunaina’s gentle heart. He does, in fact, apologize – twice – for his misbehavior; Sunaina pointing out that actions speak volumes in place of mere words. The first and second acts of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel plays like a truncated Marx Bros. routine with a bad case of mistaken identity thrown in; Sonny pouring all of his resolve into satisfying Guy Chambers’ every whim, completely overlooking Lavinia Beach (the forgettable Tamsin Grieg) who is actually scouting the hotel for her company’s interests.
The biggest hurdle yet to overcome is the picture’s many overlapping narratives. There is just too much going on in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: none of it fully fleshed out; virtually everything tinged with a rather sadistic and condescending tone meant to euphonize the geriatric sect into thinking death will come to us all as a gentle nudge; decrepit bodies laid out in colorful saris among the already overpowering sights and pungent smells of this East Indian paradise where, every morning, roll call is taken to ensure no one has, in fact, slipped these surreal bonds in the middle of the night. Apart from the lethally drawn out ‘hesitant lovers on the bumpy road to matrimony’ plot, Madden and Parker give us idiotic diversions meant to go for the cheap laugh, but that instead go nowhere quickly; like Norman inadvertently suspecting he has tipped a patch-eyed Scorpion Tuk-tuk driver (Ashok Pathak) too many rupiahs to take a hit out on Carol. Inexplicably, Madden and Parker have made short-shrift of Sunaina’s brother, Jay, who was a formidable stumbling block to the couple’s happiness in the first movie – mostly, as a doting elder protector of his sister’s already compromised virtue.
Quietly setting aside the fact Evelyn Greenslade already had a career as a consultant with Jay’s call center company in the first movie, we pick up her story, being offered a ‘buyer’s’ job by a prominent U.S. clothing manufacturer; because somewhere along the way she has become an expert on silks. Okay?!? While the first movie not only intimated Evelyn and Douglas were well along in their relationship, the revised storyline in this sequel now suggests their evergreen ‘friendship’ has fallen on the mercy of two incorrigible setbacks: first, Douglas - a doddering and wimpy clod, who cannot put two sentences together and come up with one singularly romantic thought, except when expressing his devotion to Evelyn to Norman; and second, Douglas, quite unable to consummate their love affair because of Evelyn’s rather coy standoffishness. Fate needs a push it seems, and gets more than it bargained for in act three, when Douglas’ ex, uber-bitch, Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton) returns for a brief ride on her sanctimonious broomstick; this time accompanied by their infinitely more compassionate daughter, Laura (Claire Price); who just wants to see both parents happy, though decidedly not together. It’s probably just as well, since Jean wants a divorce to marry her new love back in the U.K. Astutely, Evelyn calls Jean out on her ruse. There is no new man in her life. She has merely come to twist the screw of their impermanent separation a little deeper into Douglas’ heart. This we could forgive. After all, what does one expect from a pig but a grunt? But from Evelyn, who repeatedly toys with Douglas’ affections, denying him entry to her bedchamber, rather cruelly discounting his importance in her fresh start – first, by taking the buyer’s job without his recommendation, then, second – by doing everything to avoid greater intimacy in their relationship, and finally, by repeatedly avoiding contact with his daughter, Laura, despite professing exactly the opposite desire to do so to his face, it is pure sacrilege and a complete betrayal of everything we were led to believe in the first movie about Dench’s right proper, tea and crumpets ex-pat with a fatally flawed sentimentality for emotionally wounded people.
Taking the story out of Jaipur for a deadly dull and unnecessary prologue set in Los Angeles, where Muriel and Sonny engage a prominent elder community care provider to consider funding their second Marigold expansion, is a rather thoughtless way to set up the premise; Sonny repeatedly inserting both feet into his mouth during the meeting with Ty Burley (David Strathairn) who, nevertheless, agrees to send an anonymous advisor to Jaipur to scope out the details and file a report on his behalf, despite Muriel acting more as Sonny’s wrangler than his business partner. What a downer it is too, to have Muriel diagnosed with one of those rare and mysterious fatal diseases – its name, never spoken, its’ dark reality kept a secret from all – Muriel quietly exiting Sonny and Sunaina’s wedding in the eleventh hour to write her own obituary; Sonny sensing her absence and tearing off on his motorbike, only to discover her laid out in bed and telling him to “piss off” because she is tired and needs her beauty sleep.
It stands to reason any movie grossing $137-million on a relatively modest budget is going to be rife for a sequel. But is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel truly deserving of one? Arguably, no; since the first flick so supremely encapsulated its journey and exploration of latter-life crises on an ebulliently high note, tinged in thoughtful comedy and imbued with a spirit of genuine poignancy, wholly absent from its successor. Pointless and dull, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not even second rate; at 122 minutes, it’s mostly dribble-inducing, snooze-buttoned tedium, stitched together from afterthoughts discarded while making the original. I genuinely wanted to enjoy this follow-up to a movie I sincerely consider one of the best made in the last twenty-five years. Yet, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel falls apart almost from the moment its main titles dissolve into angst and cliché-ridden dramedy. Part of the problem here is the original overwhelmingly joyful message of ‘life is a journey’ (even when one is not entirely up to it) has been supplanted by successes achieved for all concerned at the start of this sequel. The Marigold, on the brink of foreclosure in the original movie, is now a thriving retirement village filled to capacity. Struggle on celluloid is always more richly rewarding than success, perhaps because most of us can deftly relate to the former, while only dreaming of the latter. It is richly rewarding to see the underdog triumph. But then what?
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel fills its run time with superficial nonsense inconsequential to our admiration for these characters. We all but lose the Norman/Carol subplot midway through this show; Norman’s initial concern he has inadvertently taken out a mafia-style hit on his woman, diffused by a case of mistaken language, but then train-wrecked by Norman’s realization Carol has been unfaithful to him, simply because she has assumed he is doing the same. Meanwhile, Madge has been entertaining two wealthy East Indian suitors at the Viceroy Club; toggling between afternoon rendezvous with each, chauffeured back and forth by Tuk-Tuk driver, Babul (Rajesh Tailang) who has a young daughter stricken with cancer. Evidently, Madge’s heart is awakened to the fact she does not love either man sufficiently to marry; her ego-driven quandary placated by Babul with great sincerity.
The last act of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a fanciful travesty. Lavinia reveals herself to be an inspector, trolling the Marigold for possible annexation by the company she represents. Guy explains he has been lying about his credentials as a writer. He actually is the hotel inspector sent by Ty’s consortium to a have a look-see; momentarily taken an even greater interest in Sonny’s mother, who gradually warms to both the idea and the man. As Sonny repeatedly clashes with Kushal, first accusing him of stealing a property he planned to make a bid on, then demanding he stay away from Sunaina, his own endeavors for a predictably lavish wedding ceremony go hopelessly awry. Unable to agree to a partnership with Kushal that might have secured his business interests, Sonny’s reprieve comes seemingly from thin air; bidding for and buying out the Viceroy Club to turn its palatial grounds into the ‘second best’ Exotic Marigold Hotel. The Viceroy also becomes the site of Sonny and Sunaina’s uber-kitschy Bollywood wedding, complete with its own East Indian slant on the boot-scoot boogie.
It is difficult to fault director, John Madden for wanting to return to the scene of one of his best-loved movies in a really long while; yet, as begrudgingly foolhardy of him to think he could improve upon what was already premium grade cinema perfection the first time around. Charm has escaped this second visit to the same well, perhaps because the ex-pats have, by now, managed to ransack the local color with their smug – if tenderized – superiority, and have since accepted that their own last act finales should belong to this strange and exotic land. They have settled in, found their groove, niche and level of expectation firmly established. Alas, it just is not any fun to watch people enjoying themselves despite the superficial detours the Madden/Parker screenplay keeps throwing up to momentarily create ripples of strife, easily avoidable and almost as instantly discounted by these accomplished players and their occasionally stuffy noblesse oblige, having entered the age of entitlement rather than enlightenment.
If anything, the ways of the East herein are treated even more quaintly as untouchable peasants, subservient to the wills and whims of these Toffy-nosed, but thoroughly muddle-headed outsiders. In some ways, it is as though colonization never ended in Jaipur. If anything Dev Patel transforms what was essentially a tender – if marginally flawed – performance in the original film, into an embarrassing bit of over-the-top shtick for this sequel; channeling Russell Peters for his caricature, broad brush-stroked in platitudes while playing a sort of Eddie Rochester Anderson ‘yes, boss’ hybrid that even Jack Benny would have ‘oh, please-ed’ right out of the auditorium; as Maggie Smith’s tart-mouthed Muriel readily tries to do but cannot on numerous occasions. There is way too much Patel and not enough of Tina Desai on tap in this follow-up. We are never entirely certain where her loyalties lie either; her playful innocence not really providing enough for the audience to go on. Does Sunaina truly love Sonny? Well, in the eleventh hour, she convincingly professes her unerring affinity for small guys with big ears over sexy studs already with their game together. Do we buy it? Does Sonny? Hmmm?!?
Arguably, Tom Wilkinson’s closeted magistrate, returning to the origins of a disastrous homosexual affair begun nearly forty years before, only to discover forgiveness and compassion before he dies, was the greatest asset in the original film; the glue that kept this mobile of disparate characters circulating, though cleverly from spinning wildly out of control and/or bumping into one another. In his absence, Richard Gere is expected to pick up the slack. Alas, Gere is no Wilkinson, and, little more than token sexpot with a touch of the relic now creeping in about his weathered façade. Gere’s greatest selling feature was always his face and marginally his body (Remember American Gigolo?). But both have filled out in the interim and begun to droop, making it more apparent than ever Gere’s acting skills range somewhere west of those afforded other aging pretty boys like Michael Dudikoff, Keanu Reeves and Ryan Phillippe. Good looks are often a curse, particularly as they rarely challenge their owner to look beyond what is reflected in the mirror, and, chiefly because the rest of us allow them to get away with practically murder, simply for the sheer enjoyment of ogling while they thrive. For Richard Gere, sex appeal (except, arguably for the sixty-plus crowd) is over and what is left is not really worth the price of admission.
Ben Smithard’s lush and colorful cinematography does its best to mask the shortcomings in character development and plot structure but in the end The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel fails to entertain on the same level as its original. More than anything else, I was exceptionally bored by how little was done with so much inspired talent reassembled for this much anticipated follow-up. If I had it to do over, my decision would be to pass, leaving my memories of the first feature intact. Because as Sonny once so ably explained, “…if everything isn’t alright…then perhaps it isn’t the end.” The ending to the first feature was all inclusive and perfect. No sequel required.
Unlike its predecessor, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was shot digitally with Sony’s CineAlta 65. Mostly, the results are pleasing, precise, and given to a razor-sharp explosion of colors appearing endemic to the East Indian way of life – or rather, a westerner’s light smattering of what it entails. Close-ups are the most spectacular; with Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Richard Gere’s visages a veritable craggy roadmap of dense wrinkles indicative of the longevity in their respective careers. Daytime photography on the whole is impressive and stunning. We get less pleasing results under the cover of night; the CineAlta showing an inherent weakness in capturing velvety black levels without adding a curious haze; degrading detail and rendering tonal variations muddy brown, also plagued by some rather obvious digital noise.
On screens less than 40 inches, these shortcomings are negligible at best. On my 75 inch theater set-up, such imperfections were not merely present but duly noticeable and momentarily distracting. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel boasts an impressive and immersive 5.1 DTS – noisily back lit with that whirligig buzz and bounce of densely populated streets; clear sounding dialogue and Thomas Newman’s re-purposed underscore, borrowing whole cues from the original movie, while orchestrating a few original pieces lightly feathered in, once more adding to the verisimilitude of this travelogue-styled excursion to the Far East. Extras are limited to a few press and promotion junkets made to promote the movie. They’re scant at best, and never go beyond mere snippets and sound bites to satisfy. We also get the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: it’s a weak sequel. I could have easily done without it.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)