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“Second Best?” Says Who?

Don’t be misled. “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” isn’t the second best “Exotic Marigold Hotel” movie. Truth to be told, I like it better than the first. It’s more shameless – and in this franchise who the devil needs, much less WANTS, shame?

No one has to kowtow to an original novel this time. Everyone can fall back on being who they are and doing what they do. And who they are is one of the canniest British ensemble casts you’re likely to encounter these days, directed by one of the most veteran directors in English language movies, John Madden, who previously gave us the Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love” as well as “Mrs. Brown,” “Proof” and “The Debt” and the original “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” (See an interview with Madden in Saturday’s Buffalo News.)

And what they do is ply a good chunk of their professional showbiz know-how in the science of being paid to please audiences. You can resist being charmed to itty-bitty pieces by all this if you really try. But anyone who wants to try that hard to resist Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and young Dev Patel (of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame) in full bloom, probably shouldn’t be allowed out of the house without supervision. (Clearly, they’re an emotional peril to themselves and others. The next step after rejecting this movie would seem to be hard-core antidepressants.)

We are back with this incredible cast of cinematic charmers, many of whom were being called “veteran” film performers two decades ago. They are now living embodiments of onscreen charisma, no matter what size is the screen. They get nominated for most of the acting awards in any proximity at all and win more than their share. (Smith has been on a special roll in the past decade, especially in “Downton Abbey,” for having the most exquisite talent extant for withering comic put downs. Oscar Wilde would have loved her.)

My favorite running joke in all of “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is beautifully underplayed. Every morning, the energetically ambitious proprietor of the reborn, second-class hotel in India has a roll call of all his guests who have come to India to exist on fixed incomes without breaking the bank.

They’re all old, you see, and one can never know when one of them will quietly check out and check in to that vast, infinitely accommodating hotel that must one day welcome us all with open arms.

The hotel has made such a soulful comeback from its former seediness that no one wants to check out.

Where that joke lands so well is that humor often gets blacker as the years accumulate. Death doesn’t seem at all the exotic thing it does when you’re younger. Sentimentality can, within reason, get broader too but it only works when there is a solid underpinning of social realism. And that is one of the triumphs, obviously, of the Marigold franchise.

These Brits living their final years in this teeming, wildly colorful society are refugees from the class system back home. Which is to say they’d be living on the underside of privilege in England and have found each other and an exotic world of differently tinted youth 5,000 miles away. They are not the relatives of Dame Maggie’s pals in “Downton Abbey,” which is why the sentimentality works; theirs is an inherently unsentimental life situation.

So sure, let’s by all means have Dame Maggie as the no-longer silent partner in the Marigold Hotel Business. And let’s hear her acidulous criticism of everything but British tea – and her judgment that Americans make decent “biscuits, I wouldn’t call them ‘cookies.’ ”

And let’s have ambitious hotel proprietor Patel as he wants to expand the joint as well as marry his young beloved. (Who scares him – and the audience – by rehearsing all her limber wedding dances at length with his best friend.)

And let’s by all means newly welcome Richard Gere and David Strathairn into the cast as ambiguous additions who, as Americans, may or may not be benevolent at the final curtain. “I’m here to write a novel,” Gere’s character says “about getting older and all it entails.” Strathairn plays a businessman who is, he says, in the business of “outsourcing old age.”

You can’t be in the business of so lovingly sentimentalizing senior citizenry, of course, unless you’re also in the business of emphasizing continuity i.e.; the perils and joys, pains and triumphs of the younger folk. That’s where Patel come in to provide comic relief and neurotic semi-drama.

Despite the high-horsepower names, this is absolutely an ensemble cast dependent on one and all – Nighy, Dena Desae and Celia Imrie as much as the Dames Dench and Smith.

No small factor in getting these films made, of course, is that in its last census, the population of India is well over a billion people, who are served by one of the world’s busiest film production communities. That is one heck of a potential audience. Putting an all-star English-speaking cast there to manifest love and eccentricity and local color was a no-brainer.

Enjoying the daylights out of this sequel to the previous smash is a no-brainer of a different – but still resolutely benign – sort.


the second best exotic marigold hotel

3.5 stars

Starring: Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Richard Gere, David Strathairn, Tena Desae

Director: John Madden

Running time: 122 minutes

Rating: PG for some language and frank references.

The Lowdown: Sequel to the hit comedy in which British senior citizens congregate and play romantic mixed doubles in an ambitious second-class hotel in India.

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