Like its predecessor, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a charming example of what great actors can do with mediocre material. The film unfolds, like a landlocked episode of The Love Boat, by cutting between parallel storylines. Most of these involve sex—never shown, but clearly implied—or romance between two elegantly dressed, immaculately coiffed seniors. The audience also follows wide-eyed, young Sonny (Dev Patel) and wise-owl Muriel (Maggie Smith), the co-owners of the Indian hotel turned active adult-retirement community of the title, as they work to line up a loan to expand into a second hotel. Meanwhile, Sonny prepares to marry his improbably hot fiancée, Suneina (Tena Desae), nearly blowing the whole thing by paying too little attention to her and too much to his hotel.
This could easily have felt like one of those painfully awkward movies in which dark-skinned individuals are treated as a colorful backdrop to the dawning epiphanies of a handful of lighter-skinned Westerners—and, judging by the bored expressions on the faces of a couple of beautiful little girls in the background of some of the shots, that may be how it felt to some of the extras involved. But if you accept the basic premise of the series, that the hotel gives British elders who felt invisible in their own country an opportunity to launch a vibrant new stage of life in a place that’s more welcoming to older people, and warmer in almost every way, than home, there’s pleasure in watching these characters blossom, as the cast conveys their inner lives with delicate detail and panache.
Smith’s Muriel, who started out bitter and angry in the first film, her imperious wit curdled into mean-spirited bile by a lifetime of servitude in England, has now claimed her natural place as a leader, whose sharp eyes miss nothing and whom the other residents rely on most for advice and moral support. Quiet, diminutive Evelyn (Judi Dench) is also coming into her own, still too shy to act on her love for Douglas (Bill Nighy), but gaining enough confidence in the marketplace to be offered a job as a buyer for the textiles she has become expert at purchasing at the local market.
Dench’s trademark combination of attentiveness and emotional honesty gives Evelyn great power and moral authority, even when she does something as simple as smiling fondly at her business partner after he offers her a polite lie and asking if he might do her the great favor of only telling her the truth in their future dealings. Unlike Patel and Desae, who exhibit no chemistry whatsoever until their final dance together, the older actors throw off plenty of sparks as they flirt and fight and confide in each other, creating a joyful picture of what life can look like long past what we’re generally taught to think of as our sell-by date.