Almost immediately after it was released, the 2011 stealth hit Best Exotic Marigold Hotel became more a punch line than a movie. Who knew "older" people were so starved for pictures featuring gorgeously shot exotic locales, not to mention people falling in love, falling out of love or desperately hoping for love, all while dealing with assorted problems related not just to aging but to life itself? Directed by Shakespeare in Love's John Madden and based on the novel These Foolish Things, by Deborah Moggach, the first Marigold Hotel attracted a staunchly adult audience, apparently made up of women in particular. Naturally, then, it was scorned, secretly or openly, as a hot-flash movie, the sort of thing liked by ladies who wear comfy sandals and wrap themselves in shawls for going out to dinner. In other words, it wasn't made for you or me.
But the fact that so many of us were surprised by its success — or, worse, derisive of it — suggests that we've lost touch with what movies can mean, and how they can mean it. I'm wagging the finger not at you, but at myself: I didn't see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel when it came out — no comfy sandals for me, thanks. But when I finally did catch it, I reconnected immediately with the appeal of watching wonderful actors, all of them old enough to feel deeply comfortable in their skin, working their way through a not-so-simple story that reflected the incongruities and half-disappointing surprises of real-life living. Why resist Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson, the last not, for once, playing the trademark sweaty stuffed shirt? What's more, the glossy movieness of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — largely filmed in the actual yellow-gold light of Rajasthan — wasn't a liability, but one of its chief selling points. We don't always want that real life unadulterated in the movies; we'll take the softening filter, because sometimes life just really needs it.
Now there's a sequel, named, with suitable drollness, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and also directed by Madden. (The script, once again, is by Ol Parker.) And if the harsh truth is that this followup is second best, it's still not half bad. All of the original cast — with the exception of Wilkinson, for reasons that will be clear if you've seen the first film — have returned. In the first picture, a clutch of mismatched English people d'un certain âge descended upon what they'd been led to believe was a plush retirement community in Jaipur — what they found upon their arrival was a ramshackle old joint, badly run by an antic, bumbling young go-getter (Dev Patel). Now, most of those at-first skeptical residents have settled in to the wobbly-wonderful groove of life at the hotel, and life in India: There's Dench, last time the sheltered widow who never had to fend for herself, now freelancing as a textiles buyer for an American entrepreneur; Nighy, the sweet, stammering former civil servant now freed from the shackles of his somewhat shrewish wife, Penelope Wilton (though she makes a brief appearance, and, once again, makes us feel things we'd rather not for an alleged villainess); Celia Imrie, the spirited gold-digger who just won't give up; and Smith, the former nanny and housekeeper who's now the hotel's efficient co-manager.
Lord knows Patel's hapless hotelier needs it. He's hoping to expand his franchise to include a second property, and he's also getting ready to marry his girlfriend (Tina Desai). The appearance of a mystery man — super-silver-fox Richard Gere, of all people! — throws yet another wrench into the already gummed-up works.
There's a lot going on here, perhaps too much — Madden and Parker stretch for drama instead of just allowing it to unfurl like a resplendent swath of silk. Essentially, though, they're just repeating formula, and there's still some magic to be shaken out of it. The banter between the peppery Smith and the much softer-looking, though no less fiery, Dench is particularly fun. In their one small scene together, the two seem to be riffing on undertones of real-life faux rivalry, perhaps following the script of Ian McKellen's wicked Dame Maggie Smith impersonation from Saturday Night Live: "Judi Dench. Little Judi Dench. Such a clever little Judi Dench. Little, clever, chubby Judi Dench." Smith and Dench don't go that far with their mutual ribbing, but their moments capture a particular kind of prickly affection.
Even better is the halting romance between Dench and Nighy. If you've seen the first movie, you won't believe for a second that these two haven't yet gotten it together. But Madden and Parker know we want to see how this love story blossoms rather than join it as a work already in progress. Somehow Dench, with her understated, authoritative glow, makes the movie's worldly-wise aphorisms ("Sometimes it seems the distance between what we want and what we fear is the width of an eyelash") seem genuinely wise. You can see why Nighy is besotted with her: He sputters and falters more than usual in her presence, but still throws off sexy sparks of dignity — and in his classically tailored dark suits, he looks youthfully mod.
It doesn't hurt that The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel looks as good as the first: Shot by Ben Smithard, it's a riot of reddish oranges, deep-sky blues, and pomegranate reds — a Ganesha-fest of color. But in the end, listing this sequel's flaws and charms is a loser's game, and I throw up my hands: I just had fun, maybe mostly because watching these actors brings me so much joy. There's nothing second best about that, or about them.