As the ever present shadow of the grave looms larger and darker above you, how do you make what little time you have left on this earth count for something? Do you get hung up on the past and your little insecurities, or do you throw caution to the wind and tackle head on whatever life has left to throw at you? These are the sort of questions the protagonists are faced with in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the sequel to the 2011 surprise hit comedy. Of course, these relatively dark and heady questions play out against the colourful backdrop of Rajasthan, India and the light-hearted if clichéd antics of the returning group of septuagenarians and their ever suffering hotelier.
Muriel (Maggie Smith) and Sonny (Dev Patel) are looking to expand their hotel empire and develop a second property. To achieve this, they are seeking investment from the Evergreen hotel franchise. The only problem is, the CEO (David Strathairn) will only sign off on the project after he gets a report back from inspector that he plans to send as a mystery guest.
Meanwhile, Evelyn (Judi Dench) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) are facing a few obstacles as they try to take their new relationship to the next level, Madge (Celia Imrie) is torn between the affections of two would-be suitors, and Norman (Ronald Pickup) fears that his days as a lothario are finally over. Complicating matters are Sonny’s impending nuptials to his fiancée Sunaina (Tena Desae) plus the arrival of two new guests, Guy (Richard Gere) and Lavinia (Tamsin Greig), whose real motives are anything but clear. Needless-to-say, hijinks most definitely ensue.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is, like its predecessor, obviously targeted towards a very specific demographic; anyone under the age of 60 need not apply. The plot is light with very low stakes and the humour ranges from broad to slapstick. There is nothing here that offends (at least overtly, but more on that later) or is too confronting or challenging, with returning director John Madden, writer Ol Parker and the entire cast clearly inviting the audience to come in and have a great time. By the same token though, the film also tackles themes that are very much on the minds of its target audience, with the inevitability of death not only hanging over the proceedings – Sonny conducts a daily morning roll call to ensure nobody has passed away during the night – but being used by the filmmakers as the subject for most of its comedy.
For the most part, the film manages to keep the tone light and by doing so, it turns this morbid fascination into a positive affirmation. Even though the lives of these characters are coming to their end, there is still time for new beginnings. The characters’ arcs all revolve around using what time they have left to make themselves happy; whether that is Muriel wanting to create a legacy for herself with her expanding hotel business, Guy, who needs to pick up the pieces of his shattered life and start again, or even the young Sonny, who must overcome his own insecurities and see how fortunate he really is. One could even say that these are all redemptive, as each of the characters try to make up for lost time or missed opportunities as they strive to not only learn from their mistakes, but also not to repeat them.
However, and this is a big however, regardless of the inoffensive comedic tone of the film, it suffers deeply from being a white person’s (read: British) fantasy of India, which is both historically and culturally awkward. It is very difficult to believe that the filmmakers are unaware of Britain’s colonial history, especially in India. Yet, here we have a bunch of ex-pat Brits living it up in the sub-continent as loveable benign elderly people, being waited on hand and foot by the grateful locals.
Additionally, the India showcased on screen is beautiful and inviting but is very much the Bollywood version, with bright colours, costumes and song and dance numbers, further pursuing the fantasy over the reality. Sure, it can be argued that this is a piece of cinematic fluff, not a realist drama, but it is still a very troubling Westernized view of another culture.
A fine if unremarkable piece of light entertainment, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is certainly tailored to a specific audience. Those cinema-goers who find themselves in their twilight years will find plenty to like and relate to while at the same time enjoying the fantasy and escapism that the film provides. Unfortunately, though, there are some rather irksome elements to this fantasy. Perhaps the key to enjoying this sequel is to not think about it too much, which would sit well with the filmmakers, who have doubled down on broad slapstick and uncomplicated charm.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a perfectly serviceable comedy for the retirement crowd, but it has a troubling undercurrent of cultural awkwardness that's too hard to ignore.