Take a Drink: every time Dev Patel’s jealous face looks exactly like every other face he makes.
Take a Drink: every time Maggie Smith is sassy, but not as sassy as you’d like her to be.
Take a Drink: for each mishandling of modern English idioms or reference to the Marigold as a place where people will die.
Take a Shot: every time a character gets slapped, or every time you want to slap a character. Whichever.
Finish Your Drink: whenever you predict how the main plotline resolves.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is, best described by the woman exiting the theater behind me, for those who believe “it’s about time they did a movie that didn’t need to blow up places!” It has, to its credit, no pretensions about being anything other than what your grandma wants to see. There is no conflict to be left unresolved, no pensioner whose loneliness and/or angst about aging will not be soothed in the embrace of British accents, airport novel philosophy, and Thomas Newman’s poignant score. Harry Potter reruns on ABC Family may be enough to keep the Old British Actors home in clover, but a great many of them have come out to holiday in this trite, two-hour sitcom. The pleasure of Second Best Exotic is drinking in the sight of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith seated at a table, having a conversation with each other. And you know what, my fellow belligerents? There’s nothing wrong with that.
The plot is so thin it barely rates a mention. The titular Jaipur hotel, owned by the theoretically adorable and concretely stupid Sonny (Dev Patel), is bidding to expand into a second location just on the eve of his wedding to Sunaina (Tina Desai). Petty jealousies, a snooping Richard Gere, and several flavors of romantic cliché serve as the foci for the Britishers and their bon mots. All’s well as ends with a choreographed dance number, but director John Madden tries to temper the expected happy ending with the inevitability of loss. Unfortunately, like Bill Nighy’s hair, he kind of musses it.
On the Maggie Smith Spectrum of Snark, her Muriel Donnelly here rates behind Professor McGonagall, and like on the other side of the International Date Line from Lady Violet Crawley. But, it’s still Dame Maggie Smith complaining about how air travel swells her ankles. The Thomas Newman score is very calming and if you close your eyes while Smith is talking, it’s almost the Finding Nemo/Downton Abbey crossover you didn’t know you wanted until this sentence. The entire cohort of ex-pats, in fact, is wonderful. It’s weirdly affecting to watch Dench and Nighy stuck in such a classic dance of will they/won’t they, with the grace they can imbue in lines like “We’re not not together.” Penelope Wilton proves she isn’t just here on a Julian Fellowes-ship, giving real depth to her annoying ex-wife. And while a hologram of Richard Gere from Shall We Dance? would’ve sufficed, his courtship of Sonny’s mom, Mrs. Kapoor, is pretty well executed.
Poor Dev Patel, though. The movie is mostly his story, the humor is mostly his mucking up of the English language, and the character growth is mostly defined by his overcoming heights of jealousy Daffy Duck couldn’t climb. Constrained by a script which infantilizes him at its leisure, he bounces around pulling such huge faces of joy or dejection that you begin to suspect if someone had thrown a tennis ball in from offscreen, Sonny would run and chase it. While he and Smith have a great rapport, and he tackles the bad dialogue with gusto, it’s just not enough to elevate Sonny as a person.
As much of a respite as the hotel guests are from Sonny’s antics, every single romantic plotline of theirs is predictable from the off. That makes it harder to get invested in the sincere ones and much harder to suffer the silly ones. When a drunk Ronald Pickup accidentally puts a hit out on his significant other at the very start of the film, I wrote the note, “Are we really doing this?” Yes, in fact, we are spending part of our time on a murder-aversion caper – complete with a Tuk Tuk cab chase sequence, one shot with less urgency than a Grand Theft Auto cutscene. It hurts Second Best Exotic that so much of what it has to offer is decidedly unexotic – sloppy seconds, at best.
The closest thing the film has to an antagonist is Shazad Latif’s Kushal, a swell who may or may not be in competition with Sonny for his hotel chain and his girl. Latif actually does a fine job of slowly growing out Kushal’s sleaziness, so it’s at full mast the moment Sonny has a crisis of confidence. But he’s never truly threatening. He and the rest of, and this seems slightly unsavory, the Indian characters never seem to escape their cartoonishness. The closest anyone gets to nuance is Lillete Dubey’s Mrs. Kapoor, although even she must sit in a beautiful mahogany chair and let Richard Gere explain her inner-life to her.
Getting old is not for sissies, nor for Marvel movies, and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel delivers deserved comic relief and emotional gratification to its intended demographic. Despite an often-clumsy script, it does so rewardingly, with vibrant color and lively performances by master actors. You shouldn’t pay theater prices for this film, but you should call your grandparents, just, you know, to chat? You can have the drinking game on an open tab when you all watch this On-Demand at Thanksgiving.