Each morning at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly & Beautiful, the young manager strolls the grounds with his clipboard, calling off the names of the guests and waiting to hear a response.
This is his way of making sure no one has croaked in the dead of night, so to speak.
Given the advanced age of the residents and the looming presence of the grim reaper just around the corner, it’s something of a minor miracle the “Marigold Hotel” movies are such light, colorful, life-affirming confections.
This is Retirement Porn, is what it is.
Three years ago, John Madden’s delightful travelogue about British pensioners who move to a ramshackle retirement hotel in Jaipur, India, filmed on a budget of just $10 million, became a surprise hit, with a worldwide gross of more than $136 million. The title of “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” seems like a sly acknowledgment sequels are almost never equal to the original — but I actually enjoyed this second chapter more than the first, because I was revisiting all those wonderful, cheeky characters from the first film, and I was eager to see what adventures lay in store for them.
Dev Patel returns as Sonny, the indefatigable young manager of the hotel, who runs around as if he’s just had an eight-shot espresso and meets each new challenge with a cornucopia of optimism.
Sonny is obsessed with acquiring a second hotel. As he says to the ever-sardonic Mrs. Donnelly (Maggie Smith), who is now acting as something of a co-manager and life-lesson consigliere to Sonny, “If not now, when? If not us, who?”
“Later? Somebody else?” replies Mrs. Donnelly.
Smith gives an award-worthy supporting performance as Mrs. Donnelly, who worked as a maid for 40 years (this character with her Cockney accent is about as far as one can get from Smith’s Dowager Countess on “Downton Abbey”) and retired as a bitter, prejudiced old shrew — only to find a whole new worldview in India. The woman who refused to be treated by a black doctor in the first film has become a grandmotherly figure to Sonny, and has grown extremely fond of a young Indian woman who works at the hotel. Her soul has opened to the concept of enlightenment, and just in time.
Still, Mrs. Donnelly deals out the tart jabs left and right, at one point telling a character who has just poured out her heart, “Just because I’m looking at you … don’t think I’m interested. Or even listening.” Love it.
Director Madden does a superb job of juggling multiple storylines. Judi Dench’s Evelyn has a new and quite challenging job at the age of 80, and she’s also wrestling with whether or not to accept the affections of Bill Nighy’s Douglas. (In one of the film’s golden moments, the superb Nighy reads a quote to Dench — the exact quote Dench once invoked in a different role, in another film.)
Celia Imrie’s Madge is juggling a couple of millionaire suitors. Sonny is threatened by the dashing Kushal (Shazad Latif), whom he believes is after his business and his fiancé Sunaina (Tina Desai).
And then there’s Richard Gere as Guy, who claims he’s visiting the hotel because he wants to work on his novel. Sonny is convinced Guy is actually a spy for the American company Sonny is courting as an investor. Meanwhile, Guy instantly develops a thing for Sonny’s widowed mother (Lillete Dubey).
This film is shamelessly, unapologetically sentimental, but that’s just fine because we’re rooting for everyone here — even Sonny when he’s at his most annoying and most obtuse. Some of the romances are more plausible than others; some of the character arcs aren’t quite in the realm of the believable.
But this is a fanciful tale, and it would have been a letdown if we didn’t get a gorgeously choreographed, toe-tapping Bollywood dance number somewhere along the way. (Spoiler alert: We do. And it’s lovely.)
I’d love to see a third “Marigold” adventure. Better yet, a “Masterpiece Theater”-type TV series, where we get to spend an hour every week with the regulars at the hotel and various newcomers who stop in.
If not soon, when? If not them, who?