★★½ out of four stars.
The return visit to the Exotic Marigold Hotel is like a reunion with familiar acquaintances. Or, for the pensioners who flocked like pigeons to the original, lifting the wee $10 million production to a $137 million international hit, a homecoming with old friends. If news of the sequel made you reminisce about the halcyon days of summer 2012, your hope is rewarded. However, if Judi Dench lights your fire hotter by ordering James Bond to kill people than acting ladylike and heartwarming, this is the opposite of nostalgia.
The main characters are the same crew of retired Brits who originally moved to a Jaipur boardinghouse, tired of England, illness and ennui. Some are decent but boring, others channel the romantic urges and sexual energy of their youth. All revel in their absence from the UK and are beginning to recoup their sense of self. The story’s essential focus is everyone’s choice of whom to woo.
The exceptions are Sonny (ever-enjoyable Dev Patel), the aspiring and very chatty manager of the ramshackle hotel, and Muriel (zippy Maggie Smith), who began the last film as a bigoted Cockney resident and now is a crucial pillar of strength in his business dealings. Sonny is set to marry his charming fiancée, Sunaina (Tina Desai), if she is able to resist the flirtation of a handsome, self-aggrandizing rival entrepreneur. Muriel is focused on matriarchal duties with a needy local family she loves, although they can’t communicate.
The hardworking new partners open the film with Sonny’s efforts to convince an American company that a second location for his guesthouse can win scads of mature travelers. The CEO promises to invest if a secret visitor files a glowing review. The real purpose of the meeting, though, is to give Patel and Smith a chance to show off their comic double act, he spouting oddball business adages while she harangues her hosts with complaints about insipid American tea.
Back in India, everyone has a subplot or two to deal with. With financial support on the horizon, Sonny sidetracks his wedding planning, much to his girlfriend’s annoyance. The widowed Evelyn (Dench), buying local textiles for international trade, seems to have more on her mind than her bumbling, mumbling, hesitant swain Douglas (Bill Nighy), South Asia’s least-competent tourist guide. A pair of wealthy admirers are competing for attention from the once lonely Madge (Celia Imrie).
Playboy Norman (Ronald Pickup) has at last found the woman of his dreams, Carol (Diana Hardcastle), but frantically investigates every tuk-tuk cab in town, fearful that he has unintentionally ordered a driver to run over his darling. The romance thickens with the arrival of a debonair new guest, novelist Guy Chambers (Richard Gere). Might he be the investors’ inspector, and if so, could Sonny fix him up with his lovely widowed mother (Lillete Dubey) to nail the deal?
A sequel to a surprise hit isn’t about to muddle its popular formula. Director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), who wrote the script with Ol Parker, makes “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” a straight-up follow-up, faithful as a fawning grandparent. Like Sonny and his imagined hotel empire, the filmmakers are pursuing franchise dreams. The dialogue is crammed with more jokes about the pensioners, broadly teased for having “checked out” or “like lemmings, come to the cliff edge that is the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” For those laughing at the breakfast-hour roll calls to make sure no one passed on overnight, the new jokes are just that much more fun.