During the first installment of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, we spent time with Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson), a withdrawn retiree traveling to Jaipur, India — returning, actually — after a long career and a longing for what he had missed out on in his successful professional endeavors. His story, at first, seemed like nothing special, but he revealed so little of himself to the rag-tag collection of companions he found himself sharing time with that he came across as an international man of mystery. None of the others had a significant connection to India, or anything outside their own rather limited experiences, but Graham was so driven and isolated in his quest that he was locked away on the fringe, and inevitably disappeared completely from the rest of the team.
Graham was sacrificed, in effect, to ensure that the rest of Team Marigold could survive. It is interesting to imagine them as aging heroes (fitting since the Hotel faced off against The Avengers at the box office on the first go around), fending off the inevitable moment when their stories (and their contributions) are no longer necessary and vital, when their lives cease to have meaning.
Thankfully, though, they didn’t go down without a fight. Evelyn (Judi Dench) took inspiration from her new surroundings and forged a bold path in this strange new land. Douglas (Bill Nighy) shook off years of meekly allowing his wife Jean (Penelope Wilton) to lead him by the nose. Muriel (Maggie Smith), in her unwillingness to change, found a place for herself where she was truly needed as the foundation of the fledgling hotel venture, along with its naively blundering owner Sonny (Dev Patel) and Sunaina (Tina Desai), the girl of his dreams who gets lost in the shuffle.
And let’s not forget the lustful wanderers Norman (Ronald Pickup — such an apt name for this would-be lothario) and Madge (Celia Imrie), who heedlessly follow the stirring in their loins that society wants to believe should be dormant.
For part two, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel continues along the same path, having shaken off Graham’s anchoring melancholy, replacing it with a wistful, unfulfilled ache that lingers in each character, some moreso than others.
Douglas, having jettisoned Jean, pines for Evelyn. The two spend their days working through their retirement in Jaipur, and their evenings engaged in a most understated courtship, brimming with unspoken affection and longing looks that are recognizable by all but the couple themselves. Norman, on the other hand, has settled down quite comfortably with Carol (Diana Hardcastle), a fellow pleasure-seeker, while Madge has a pair of eligible suitors hooked, but has an itch that neither is quite able to satisfactorily scratch for her.
Muriel and Sonny have the most obvious big-picture storyline, thanks to the burgeoning success of the first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Sonny wants to expand but needs an infusion of cash and support, so the pair heads to the U.S. to negotiate with a branded chain headed by Ty Burley (the exquisitely bearded David Strathairn) who agrees, in principle, but sends an anonymous scout to check on things before making a final decision.
Of course, the secret inspector is slated to arrive just as Sonny’s in the final stages of planning and executing his wedding to Sunaina, so there are the typical examples of mistaken identity and botched plans that must occur along the way before the happy ending, right? Check.
But despite an over-stuffed narrative stew with too many characters and ancillary plotlines, too much silliness and simplistic emotional dynamics that threaten to become soapy clichés at best, returning director John Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker (both working without the benefit of an adaptive roadmap — Deborah Moggach’s novel served as the primer for the first installment) never forget that they have super characters and actors with the ability to inject humanity into even the most derivative moments.
And beyond mere life, what performers like Nighy and Dench (and the others) remind audiences is that this world is teeming with adults struggling to maintain some sense of themselves at a time when society wants to put them out to pasture or, sadly, put them down.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is all about the innumerable chances life offers, and the fierce fighting spirit that burns in us no matter the age or situation in which we find ourselves. Intriguingly, that spirit, this time out, replaces the exotic location, and with new beacons (in the form of Richard Gere and a much better used Lillete Dubey as Sonny’s mother) presents a worthy second stay that could open the door for even more — not at all unwelcome — visits down the road. (Opens Friday) (PG) Grade: B (tt stern-enzi)