It’s clear that when beloved matriarchal figure Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) describes hotel entrepreneur Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (★★★) is attempting to write its own review. Sonny, she observes in a moment of droll understatement, gets a lot of things wrong…but never when it matters most. And when he gets things right, it is a sight to behold.
It only remains then for the critic to co-sign or not. And…yes, I am on board.
It is probably fitting that The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is getting released the same month that The Breakfast Club is being restored and celebrated for its thirtieth anniversary. John Madden’s romantic-light-on-the-comedy relies on formulas that work better in high-school movies or television sitcoms. Sonny wants to restore and open a second hotel, but the financing depends on the report of a mystery guest. Since there is only room for two new guests at the inn, we know that it must be either Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) or Lavinia Beech (Tamsin Greig), so of course, Sonny spends the whole movie being obsequious to one and downright rude to the other. Evelyn (Judi Dench) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) continue to moon after one another but haven’t consummated their romance yet because…well nobody is quite sure. Maybe because their being apart allows Muriel to dole out pearls of wisdom. Meanwhile, Sonny is so involved in his business plans that he neglects to prepare for the wedding dance with his betrothed, Sunaina. Does this leave the door open for their richer, better-looking, better dancing, more attentive friend Kushal to steal her heart? Not really, but every sitcom needs a second act complication.
As the summary makes clear, I could co-sign on all the snarky comments, too. Tally up the pros and cons, though, and the former easily outweigh the latter. First, the performers are so affable that we don’t really care that the characters they play are pretty static (and in Sonny’s case, pretty dumb). With Dench, Smith, Nighy, and Patel, it’s about the delivery, not the lines themselves. Second, these characters, for all their cattiness, have obvious affection for one another. I’m not just speaking of the ones that are romancing each other. My favorite scene was between a father and his daughter, with the latter providing encouragement to the man to cultivate his own happiness. So many comedies today are based on cruel humor, cutting insults, or just plain lewdness, but here we see characters helping each other and loving each other. Even when Douglas’s wife Jean (Penelope Wilton) shows up to ask for a divorce, the film avoids milking conflict from antagonists. The obstacles to be overcome are almost always internal.
That second point led me to a conclusion about the Marigold franchise and its popularity: there are a lot of films about dying but not too many about aging. The observations the film makes about aging aren’t particularly profound, but they are gentle and affirming. At the heart of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the conviction that we are constantly becoming who we are. While the past influences our present, it doesn’t dictate our future.