Say what you will about 2011’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” for all its cuteness and adorability, it never felt like it was content to just let its talented ensemble — including British vets Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, and Bill Nighy, plus Dev Patel as an excitable Indian entrepreneur — merely coast on its collective charm.
The same cannot be said for “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” where coasting is all there is, in the hopes that these charismatic and talented actors can somehow make tandoori chicken salad out of a screenplay (by returning writer Ol Parker, no longer tethered to the novel by Deborah Maggoch) that’s chock-full of unmotivated action, half-baked characters, and lazily-constructed conflicts so contrived they’d get booted out of the “Two and a Half Men” writer’s room.
In an attempt to spice things up, director John Madden shoehorns in the splendor of an Indian wedding plus a few new faces, but the result is a sequel so lifeless and uninspired that it threatens to retroactively sour any good feelings you might have had about its predecessor.
After a tacked-on prologue in which hotelier Sonny (Patel) and his cranky aide-de-camp Mrs. Donnelly (Smith) drive through the Route 66 desert to San Diego for a meeting with senior-living magnate Ty Burley (David Strathairn) — and if their flight from Mumbai landed in Los Angeles, that means they’re taking one hell of a scenic route — we quickly get settled into the film’s parade of bland plot points, all of which will be settled in comforting sitcom fashion.
Sonny is paying more attention to the expansion of his old-folks-home empire than to his impending wedding to Sunaina (Tina Desai), and he becomes irrationally jealous over her friendship with family chum Kushal (Shazad Latif). Evelyn (Dench) and Douglas (Nighy) have fallen in love, but they’re both too afraid to make the first move. Madge (Celia Imrie) finds herself torn between two suitors but oblivious to a third who’s right under her nose.
Then there’s the simultaneous arrival of Guy (Richard Gere), a would-be novelist, and Lavinia (Tamsin Greig), who’s checking out the hotel in hopes of sending her mother there. Sonny becomes convinced that Guy is actually an undercover employee of Ty’s, so he fawns all over the new guest, even when the handsome American starts showing interest in Sonny’s mother Mrs. Kapoor (Lillete Dubey).
The constant violation of the “one five-minute conversation would end this movie” rule would be forgivable if the production offered something interesting and non-story-related for these characters to do, but no such luck. Sure, Smith gets the occasional zinger, but none of them are at the level of what the Dowager Countess gets to say on “Downton Abbey” every week.
These pros put on their game faces and muddle through the barely-there romances and dilemmas, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that talent is being grossly wasted; Greig is currently one of the funniest woman on television, in Showtime’s under-loved “Episodes,” but you’d never know it here, given how very little she’s called upon to do.
Cinematographer Ben Smithard (“Belle”) revels in the vibrancy of modern India, from urban Mumbai to relatively laid-back Jaipur, but he doesn’t bring South Asia to life in a way that’s particularly different from any other film shot in that part of the world over the last decade or so. That level of nothing-new-to-see-here sadly makes a perfect fit for this afterthought of a sequel.
Watch the trailer below: