Friday, March 6, 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: Second-rate

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, for mild profanity and sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.6.15

In this particular case, “second best” is ... merely OK.

It’s like visiting a friend you haven’t seen for a few years, only to discover that the friend has changed. And not for the better.

Able — if only for a moment — to forget the various issues plaguing his personal and
professional life, Sonny (Dev Patel, center) reflects on the warm bond he has established
with Muriel (Maggie Smith, at his immediate right).
The set-up is familiar, and therefore offers less of the first film’s delightful sense of discovery; the subplots are more contrived, giving a sense, at times, that all concerned are trying too hard; and Maggie Smith doesn’t get nearly as many of her deliciously piquant one-liners (echoing those she also flings so readily on TV’s Downton Abbey).

At 122 minutes, this sequel also is a bit long, and drags in spots.

Fortunately, familiarity isn’t an entirely bad thing. The entire cast has returned for this second outing, as have writer/director John Madden and co-scripter Ol Parker. They’re all seasoned pros, and while the ground on which they tread may be worn, they nonetheless step with alacrity.

There’s no question that the first Hotel’s success owes much to aging baby-boomers who tire of comic-book movies; we also can point to similarly delightful “aging relic” characters in recent films such as Quartet, Philomena, Pride and even the aforementioned Downton Abbey. Frankly, it’s refreshing to spend time with people who weren’t in diapers a mere decade ago.

That said, Madden and Parker shrewdly hedge their bets by including the much younger Dev Patel, even more familiar now, in the wake of his three-season run on HBO’s The Newsroom His Sonny Kapoor continues to be the hilariously over-enthusiastic glue that binds the residents of his Jaipur-based Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Patel also knows his way around a well-timed line delivery, and Sonny remains much like the dinner guest who invariably embarrasses himself, no matter what the conversational circumstances, by going one ill-advised sentence over the edge.

But poor Sonny endures more than his share of flustered setbacks in the second outing, and Patel struggles gamely to navigate these abnormal waters. That he mostly succeeds has more to do with his skill as an actor, than with the material with which he’s forced to work.

And “forced” seems the operative term. Much of the first film’s dynamic revolved around fish-out-of-water tension: the need for ex-pat Brits to navigate this exotic and wholly alien territory. Well, the territory has become comfortable, which means that Madden and Parker have to pull new narrative tricks out of their hats ... and the strain is noticeable.

Time has passed since the hotel’s permanent guests — read: residents — arrived and bonded in the first film. The newly single Douglas (Bill Nighy) has become a local guide for visiting tourists, although his informative patter relies on scripted notes fed clandestinely, via radio and an ear bud, by an easily distracted young confederate.

Evelyn (Judi Dench) has parlayed her business sense into a potentially lucrative arrangement with a fabrics start-up company; the coquettish Madge (Celia Imrie) is juggling two wealthy and quite eligible local gentlemen. Norman and Carol (Ronald Pickup and Diana Hardcastle) are feeling their way through the unspoken rules of an exclusive relationship, and Muriel (Maggie Smith) remains on hand to make catty remarks about it all.

Norman and Madge also have gone into business together, trying to revive the nearby Viceroy Club: a fading relic of the former British empire, unsurprisingly unable to keep up with the times.

Sonny continues to make plans for his impending marriage to the love of his life, Sunaina (Tina Desai), under the watchful gaze of his authoritarian mother, Mrs. Kapoor (Lillete Dubey).

Alas, the ambitious Sonny can’t be content with status quo. Determined to expand into a second location — although we never see the “outpouring” of new guests that would necessitate such a plan — he and Muriel travel to California, in order to meet investor and lodging magnate Ty Burley (the always engaging David Strathairn). Their goal: secure financing to help purchase an abandoned, run-down hotel back in Jaipur, which has caught Sonny’s eye.

Burley is intrigued but cautious; he conditions his support on a report to be filed by a clandestine observer (read: spy) who will be sent to stay awhile at the original Exotic Marigold Hotel, thereby observing Sonny’s management style in action.

Back in Jaipur, since we subsequently get only two new clients at the hotel — aspiring novelist Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) and the oddly youthful Lavinia Beech (Tamsin Greig), checking out the place on behalf of her mother — the spy pretty much has to be one of them, right?

That’s needlessly limiting. How hard would it have been, to have tossed in a few more new faces, if only in the background?

Sonny’s sycophantic efforts to please Guy — convinced that he’s the “plant” — at the expense of poor, overlooked Lavinia, slide into the realm of broad comedy (while encouraging some particularly pungent remarks from Muriel). Gentler conflict comes from the blossoming mutual attraction between Douglas and Evelyn, although neither seems to know how to take the first step; Nighy and Dench gently, warily flirt in a particularly endearing manner.

Elsewhere, Madge frequently confesses her indecision — which suitor to choose? — to her solicitous and observant driver, Babul (Rajesh Tailang).

Norman, meanwhile, fears that some idle and highly inebriated chatter may have given an entirely wrong idea to a local tuk-tuk taxi driver.

Perhaps the clumsiest plot element, however, revolves around the introduction of Kush (Shazad Latif), a friend of Sunaina’s brother. Kush, freshly arrived from the States, is a dashing, oh-so-perfect interloper in whose shadow Sonny places himself: a guy potentially capable of stealing Sunaina’s heart.

The problem is that Sunaina seems oblivious to this dynamic, going so far as to take rather slinky dance lessons from Kush. Heck, any reasonable guy would regard Kush as a threat ... and in more ways than one, as the story progresses. Making Sunaina this insensitive is an unpalatable stretch; turning Sonny into a jealous buffoon worsens the situation.

This isn’t necessarily a bad dynamic on its face; after all, awkward triangles have been the stuff of romantic comedy for generations. But Sunaina’s clumsily inconsiderate behavior goes against this film’s core tone, and it’s painful to watch Sonny become such a jerk.

Gere and Greig are a similarly awkward fit, neither of them wholly comfortable in these surroundings. It’s actually a relief when Douglas’ ex, Jean (Penelope Wilton), shows up unexpectedly, injecting the sort of credible, mildly snarky tension that we expect from these characters, and this setting.

The location continues to be enchanting and exotic, with vibrant surprises around every corner; we can’t help being charmed by the juxtaposition of tuk-tuk taxies and gaily painted elephants fighting trucks and bicycles for space on Jaipur’s overcrowded highways. And as our ex-pat characters have become more familiar with the vivacious colors and rhythms of this famed “pink city,” Madden and production designer Martin Childs have obliged with crowded and merrily noisy street markets, sumptuous banquet halls and architectural wonders such as Jaigarh Fort, the Cenotaphs of the Kings, and a massive, landscape-hugging edifice that isn’t the Great Wall of China.

The approach of a traditional Indian wedding offers an excuse for some lavishly exotic dancing, which both Desai and Patel embrace with élan ... reminding us of the latter’s similarly smooth moves at the end of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire.

But I’m less satisfied with a subplot involving Muriel, which undercuts the film’s finale: a bit too dour and “real life” for this otherwise larkish atmosphere. It feels like a sidebar that wandered in from an entirely different film.

Individually, this and other issues cited above are minor, and probably won’t bother viewers content to bask in the collective star wattage of this talented and thoroughly delightful cast. Collectively, though, these scripting and directorial decisions can’t help reminding us that this film’s predecessor was much better constructed and, therefore, more endearing.

Sequels to successful romantic comedies often seem dictated more by studio greed, than by narrative necessity. Arthur begat Arthur 2; Bridget Jones’s Diary prompted Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. In both cases, the sequel is best forgotten, lest it taint the memory of the respective original. This Second Best Exotic Hotel isn’t quite that disappointing ... but it also doesn’t leave us with the warm-hearted buzz we felt back in 2011, after seeing the first one.

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