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Non-Review Review: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel takes a formula that worked well enough the first time, and tries to figure just how much it can add in on top without throwing everything out of a balance. When producing a sequel, the tendency is to double down on what worked before – to commit to the bits to which the audience responded, sometimes missing the fact that moderation might have been some of the appeal. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel commits to its cast, putting the various star through a wide variety of sitcom premises that look like they might have been lifted from a UK Gold marathon.

In some ways, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel feels a little bit like the ambitious construction and renovation project planned by Sonny Kapoor: sprawling, excessive, unwieldy, overly elaborate. The main cast are not clustered as they were the first time around, meaning that The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel feels disjointed at best and haphazard at worst. Richard Gere arrives to lend some extra prestige (and some international appeal) to the film, but seems almost like a distraction from the thespians around him.

Getting into Gere...

Getting into Gere…

There are points where it feels like The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel might collapse under its own weight. The character plots don’t really intersect or overlap, so the ensemble frequently finding themselves fighting for space as the movie tries to figure out who warrants the most attention. (The relative name recognition seems to offer a convenient deciding factor, which is a shame in some respects.) While director John Madden does not keep as tight a rein on the film as he might, he prevents the film from completely dissolving into a series of interconnected sitcom episodes.

Still, despite these problems, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel delivers what it promises: a familiar framework for veteran actors to demonstrate that they can still carry a light and entertaining film.

No need to make a song and dance about it...

No need to make a song and dance about it…

There is something quite charming in the idea that a romantic comedy starring Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie and Penelope Wilton could have such broad appeal so as to franchise itself. Actors of a certain age often find themselves overlooked and dismissed, forgotten and brushed aside – consigned to prestige films and stock supporting roles. It is nice to see that “so light and fluffy it almost floats away” comedy is not exclusively a young actors’ game. Even if “the majority of the cast is closer to death than birth” feels like a crutch for one (or ten) too many jokes.

The cast do good work. Maggie Smith brings her acerbic cynicism to the role of Muriel Donnelly, who plays the elder stateswoman of the cast – mentor to Sonny, (un)sympathetic ear to Evelyn, provider of helpful summations. Judi Dench might not be delivering her best work, but she brings a warmth and reflection to the introspective Evelyn Greenslade. Bill Nighy offers his wry vulnerability to the role of newly-single Douglas Ainslie. There is fun to be had in watching these veterans work together.

The Muriel the merrier...

The Muriel the merrier…

That said, the structure of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel undermines this otherwise appealing aspect of the formula. So much of the film is devoted to sending the cast off on wacky adventures that there is no real opportunity for interaction outside of a few short snippets of conversation here and there. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel does not feel like one cohesive film so much as a cocktail of four or five half-hour television episodes structured into a loosely-interlocking anthology format. It is an approach that makes sense, but one that feels like it misses the biggest lure of the premise.

Bill Nighy and Judi Dench find themselves allocated their own rather large subplot that takes them away from the rest of the cast (and even each other) for significant portions of the film. Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup are also sent on their own separate adventures, despite the fact that the plot provides a number of obvious points of intersection. Dev Patel gets his own domestic drama and personal crisis which only occasionally draws in Maggie Smith or Richard Gere. Even new arrival Richard Gere seems to carve out his own character arc mostly divorced from the rest of the principles.

Toast of the town...

Toast of the town…

So the bulk of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has the principals going through a variety of familiar story beats. Douglas and Evelyn deal with their romantic feelings for one another as Douglas faces his divorce and Evelyn finds her career taking off. Sonny is getting married, finding himself troubled by the arrival of a potential business (and maybe even romantic) rival. Norman might have accidentally taken a hit out on his girlfriend. Madge finds herself torn between two suitors. On top of all that, the hotel finds itself being visited by an undercover investigator.

So there is a lot of material for The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to cram into its two-hour runtime, a lot of ground to cover. There is a sense that the script never quite figures out how to properly prioritise its story threads. Much attention is devoted to the entirely predictable romance between Bill Nighy and Judi Dench, along with the mystery-guest-confusion and wedding-plot-hijinx involving Dev Patel. Adding some international clout to the cast, Richard Gere finds himself a key player in Dev Patel’s plot, along with his own little character arc to boot.

Let's talk business...

Let’s talk business…

As such, most of the rest of the cast find themselves fighting over scraps. In particular, Ronald Pickup’s subplot barely has room to breath, which makes it a problem when it takes a late-film turn for the dramatic. Celia Imrie’s plot gets a resolution that feels more perfunctory than revelatory. While her role in Dev Patel’s plot gives her something to do, Maggie Smith is consciously sidelined in the second half of the film so as to avoid the implications of what might be a pretty heavy story thread for a film like this. (For all that the movie jokes about mortality, it has a hard time engaging with it.)

Still, there are moments that work. While Richard Gere seems to spend most of the movie on autopilot (one gets the sense that the movie might have worked better if the producers had swapped his role with that of David Strathairn), he really gets into the spirit of the final dance sequence. Although consigning Maggie Smith to thoughtful voice-over is not the most effective use of her talents, she imbues the movie’s occasionally trite sentimentality with a surprising heft. While they might not have the most interesting material, and are covering largely familiar ground, Bill Nighy and Judi Dench are always fun to watch.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel manages to deliver on most of what it promises. While the execution leaves a little be be desired, there remains a solid foundation.

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