Chances are, if you liked The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, you'll like the second best one as well. The original packed a thousand old-person-in-a-foreign-land clichés, but tempered them with sweet insights into old age and some fine performances; the new one does pretty much the same. It’s more predictable, sure, but predictability is part of its game. Maybe the word we’re looking for isn’t predictable; maybe it’s comfortable.
The sequel picks up the Anglo pensioner inhabitants of this charmingly rundown Indian hotel nine months after the events of the original. Everybody's settling in nicely; whereas the first film was about the culture clash of aging Westerners in India, now they’re slowly integrating. Muriel (Maggie Smith), once a bitter xenophobe, is now helping hotel proprietor Sonny (Dev Patel) try to expand his operation. Madge (Celia Imrie), who was an unrepentant single in the first film, is now seeing two wealthy Indian men, each of whom wants to pop the question. Evelyn (Judi Dench), who once found herself becoming increasingly replaceable in both life and work, has just been offered a job as a textile purchaser; meanwhile, her relationship with once-married Douglas (Bill Nighy), which gave the first film an adulterous kick, remains unconsummated, to both of their bewilderment and frustration.
As for Sonny himself, he remains his ambitious, energetic self, prone to florid pronouncements and unwelcome asides about death. (“The hotel is full, with nobody checking out … until the ultimate checkout!” “From here to the hospital, it’s only a short walk … or a short stretcher ride!”) The first film skirted the boundaries of good taste with its one-dimensional depiction of him, its lone Indian protagonist. But now, Sonny is preparing to marry Sunaina (Tina Desai) and thus has a bit more to do than run around acting like an idiot, though he still does some of that, too. (The film is structured around the three main parts of an Indian wedding ceremony, which thankfully also gives the rest of the Indian characters something to do.)
Ol Parker's script has quite a lot to juggle when you think about it: Not only does it have to integrate the wedding into the plot, it also has to perform this movie's version of fan service: Give each member of its cast of heavyweights something meaty to do. (These are, after all, some of the finest actors in the known universe, and you can’t just have them stand around.) It also has to handle the introduction of a new character: a somewhat enigmatic author played by Richard Gere, who Sonny is convinced is a hotel inspector despite all appearances to the contrary (a subplot that recalls a classic Fawlty Towers episode). It could have easily become a dog’s breakfast of subplots and wacky-old-person shenanigans. But the proceedings remain dignified and smooth, thanks to the game cast, some decent romantic tension (particularly between Nighy and Dench, as well as Gere and Lillete Dubey, as Sonny’s mother) and John Madden’s elegant, patient camera. The title says it all: This is second best, so don’t expect much. But for those who adored the original, it’ll do.