Deep Focus: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
In The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Bill Nighy plays retired civil servant Douglas Ainslie to perfection. And why wouldn’t he? In its combination of diffidence, sensitivity, and a sort of bewildered dash, it’s the ultimate Bill Nighy role. It’s one of many elements that have made this unlikely franchise about an eccentric Indian golden-years hotel into a global hot ticket. Nighy puts the sex into sexagenarian, just as co-stars Judi Dench and Maggie Smith create a blessedly sharp and multifaceted depiction of octogenarian female bonding.
At the end of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (11), Douglas chose staying at the hotel over returning to England with his harsh, depressive wife Jean (Penelope Wilton); a key lure to life in India was the prospect of courting an amiable widow, Evelyn Greenslade (Dench). The movie’s matter-of-factness about aging and mortality was part of its charm. Now, amid the fructifying tumult of Jaipur, Douglas continues to embrace the comradeship of the hotel’s “elderly and beautiful” clientele, including semi-reformed lothario Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) and marriage-hungry Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie). They all bask in the affection of effusive, sesquipedalian hotelier Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), who can’t be calmed even by comically dour Muriel Donnelly (Smith). She went to India for an outsourced hip replacement and stayed on to become Sonny’s strong right arm, the beating heart of the Marigold Hotel, and the staunchest embodiment of its tenets of staying open and letting go. After all, she transcended xenophobia and racism to become a sage and salty presence there.
Douglas’s halting evolution as a reborn man and Nighy’s engaging reenactment of his stammers, missteps, ardor, and honesty, are prime examples of what’s right in this erratic follow-up. The moviemakers design Douglas’s arc, in particular, as a series of pleasurable in-jokes and seriocomic anticlimaxes. In the first film, Douglas admitted to Evelyn that he couldn’t fix a thing. In the second, he tries to repair bikes with the aid of a practiced mechanic. In The Best, he also confessed that after reading the history of a nearby palace, he hadn’t remembered a word of it. In The Second Best, he works as a guide at local sites—helped by a boy who reads the details into Douglas’s earpiece, so memory does not appear to be a problem.
This film starts just eight months after he and Evelyn made their first “date,” for tea. So it’s frustrating but not surprising that they haven’t yet become romantic. Everyone around them knows they’re made for each other. But part of what makes them “right” is that they share both curiosity about the wider world and personal modesty. When Evelyn agrees to scout Indian fabrics for a textile business, her far-flung job provokes some entertaining haggling. The time away from Douglas only intensifies her feelings for him. Dench and Nighy make this pair’s stop-and-go progress as piquant as it is touching.
The returning director-writer team of John Madden and Ol Parker, when they’re on their game, push their characters forward gently and rambunctiously. When they’re off, they force affable men and women into story lines that are merely mushy or silly, and sometimes both at once. Norman thinks he inadvertently put out a hit on his lover, Carol Parr (Diana Hardcastle), by complaining about monogamy to a tuk-tuk driver; then he’s consumed with jealousy when he suspects her of infidelity. And with more tedium than comedy, Madge leads on two wealthy Indian men at their swank mansions until she learns about true love at a much humbler address.
Of course it’s challenging to juggle nine or 10 returning figures with a sprinkling of fresh faces, including Sonny’s slick perceived rival, Kushal (Shazad Latif), and two new hotel guests, self-styled novelist Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) and middle-aged woman on the make, Lavinia Beech (Tamsin Greig). So to provide momentum and unity, the filmmakers build to an impending grand occasion—Sonny’s marriage to the beautiful and indispensable Sunaina (Tina Desai). The results are mixed. Gere acts agreeably breezy as Guy, but when he woos the bridegroom’s savvy mother (Lillete Dubey, who was also terrific in last year’s The Lunchbox), his come-on, as written, is so condescendingly smooth that it’s pathetic. The skillful, elegant Dubey, at age 61, is four years younger than Gere (and looks it). Guy starts out by saying she must see herself as a once-beautiful woman—a line that would have most women tossing wine in his face.
Even worse, Sonny himself loses all perspective in Guy’s presence. Convinced that Guy is an undercover analyst for his potential American investor, Ty Burley (David Strathairn), Sonny swoons over him as embarrassingly as Jon Stewart does whenever he interviews a conventionally handsome Anglo-American star. (In both cases, it’s shtick—incredibly awkward and unfunny shtick.) Adding to the strained, sentimental farce is Sonny’s belief that Kushal has undercut him romantically and professionally. He enters a manic mode that frays the patience of his skeptical in-laws and even his devoted friends.
Sonny does manage to rise to his great day, and Patel’s authentic exuberance as a performer reclaims Sonny’s place in the hearts of the audience. Cast members of all ages come together in a bust-out Bollywood dance, made equally engaging by Patel’s and Desai’s elating virtuosity and the way the entire party gets drawn into their magnetic field. It’s hard to resist seeing Dench and Nighy, as well as that practiced hoofer Gere, follow imaginative moves that have been nick-named “air guitar,” “airplane,” and everybody’s favorite, “shampooing the dog.”
The climax isn’t simply gleeful. It includes Madden’s deft handling of a long goodbye from Muriel, a tough working-class woman who’s become Sonny’s most crucial supporter. Maggie Smith’s performance is unmannered and free of slop, despite its heart-tugging turns. Smith has the wit to play Muriel as a woman who keeps her sense of humor to herself. She makes it hard to tell when Muriel is simply being frank or is executing an intricate putdown, as when Evelyn tells her buddy Muriel she’s only 19 days older than herself, and Muriel observes that 19 days is “the entire lifespan of a wasp.”
What makes you warm up to this “feel-good” movie is Madden’s unreserved affection for his entire ensemble. In an opening coup of casting and directing, the filmmaker uses that wonderful actor Strathairn, with his air of appreciative awareness, to convey what everyone should adore about dry-witted Muriel and fulsome Sonny—they’re an odd but essential coupling of experience and innocence. This director also brings unusual textures to obligatory scenes. Madden and his cinematographer, Ben Smithard, know how to shoot a street market or a wedding feast so that turbulent colors and vectors of motion blend together and the actors remain paramount.
Madden is usually underrated: it’s as if the victory he enjoyed at the 1998 Oscars, when Shakespeare in Love upset Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, doomed him to film snob hell. But Shakespeare in Love, which had the light touch and witty bravado to expand our pleasure in Shakespeare's plays by embroidering on them, holds up as a jolly, inventive piece of japery, while the supposed realistic breakthroughs of Saving Private Ryan seem increasingly outdated every time a filmmaker ups the ante on bloody combat scenes, as David Ayers recently did in Fury. Madden made one of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations, Killshot (08), with another tip-top cast (Mickey Rourke, Rosario Dawson, Diane Lane, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and his spy thriller, The Debt (10), about a Mossad mission to kidnap a notorious Nazi known as “The Surgeon of Birkenau,” to my mind has more complexity and oomph than Spielberg’s Munich. Similarly, Madden’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (01), a complicated romance set on the Greek island of Cephalonia during World War II, hinging on the love affair between pert, intelligent Pelagia (Penélope Cruz), the daughter of the island doctor (John Hurt), and virile, musical Captain Corelli (Nicolas Cage), who leads a company of Italian occupiers, was more unexpected and original, more rigorous and sympathetic than Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient.
In the most unlikely circumstances, Madden has a knack for nailing the emotional center of each scene. That’s what makes these Marigold movies honest crowd-pleasers. The plot turns in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are sometimes artificial, but the sense of camaraderie among its aging expatriates remains palpably real. If you fall under the spell of their good company, nothing is more important than Sonny calling roll in the morning and every guest responding with a robust and individualized “Here!”