The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' might lull you to sleep

John Madden's sequel suggest modern India likes nothing more than helping elderly English people

Thursday March 5, 2015 04:00 am EST

Does anyone in real life constantly pepper their conversation with phrases like "most assuredly"? Such terms, along with a lack of contractions and a roundabout way of speaking, constantly mark English and American depictions of Third World characters, particularly in India and Africa. The likes of Apu from "The Simpsons," the ensemble of "The Ladies' No. 1 Detective Agency," and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel's Sonny Kapoor all seem to have the same voice coach.

That self-consciously quaint diction seldom seems deliberately mean-spirited on the part of writers and filmmakers, but still comes across as condescending. There's a fine line between capturing local color and repeating stereotypes, and the films set at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful frequently find themselves on the wrong side of the divide. The Marigold Hotel movies, directed by John Madden, suggest modern India likes nothing more than helping elderly English people.

A title like The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel seems like handing critics a club to use against a sequel, but in some ways, the new installment improves on its predecessor, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Emphatically tame and insubstantial, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel relies on a likable cast and lovely cinematography to deliver an experience as pleasantly forgettable as a nice two-hour nap.

Eight months have passed since the end of the last film, when a group of aging English folks became the first residents of the titular hotel in Jaipur. Young proprietor Sonny (Dev Patel) seeks to buy a second building, the Supreme Quality Hotel, in order to expand, although his potential investors prove more impressed by his no-nonsense manager Muriel (Maggie Smith). Richard Gere, in full silver fox mode, turns up as a guest who Sonny suspects of being a hotel inspector incognito.

Sonny's business ambitions frequently conflict with his imminent plans to wed Sunaina (the ravishing Tina Desai). Their wedding dance rehearsals interject some vibrancy into the film, and practically dangle the possibility that Patel will reprise his Oscar-winning "Jai Ho" number from Slumdog Millionaire. The ritual and pageantry of an Indian wedding provide a counterpoint to the English characters as they putter around.

The conflicts of the previous Marigold were so minor, the film felt almost free of incident. Here, the English retirees have integrated more into Indian society, for a greater diversity of stories. Widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench) brushes up her marketplace haggling as a textile buyer, while Douglas (Bill Nighy) gives tours despite his spotty memory. There's also a shtick involving a boy feeding him lines through an earpiece that sets up some labored jokes.

The first film ended with the intimation that Evelyn and Douglas would get together, but here, they're more in the "Just hanging out" phase of their relationship. They spend most of the movie in a state of under-motivated ambivalence toward dating each other, which doesn't serve Dench or Nighy well, even though they're both great actors.

Other plots hinge on ideas of monogamy, with Madge (Celia Imrie) splitting time between two wealthy Indian lovers and Norman (Ronald Pickup) thinking about playing the field despite his girlfriend Carol (Diana Hardcastle). The latter leads to a subplot with Norman worrying that an Indian driver believes he wants Carol dead, but at least the goofy suspense scenes add an element of danger to the otherwise toothless depiction of India.

Otherwise, the film gets what little edge it has from Smith, with her Debbie Downer hairstyle, as the witheringly caustic Muriel. Asked how she found America, Muriel says, "I went with low expectations, and came back disappointed." Likewise, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel sets such a sleepy tone and presents such pretty scenery, it's most assuredly like watching the vacation slides of some veteran actors.

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