Unfortunately, the title is also an indication of the quality.
There is a commercial for "Second Best" featuring a clip of an interview with Richard Gere, who plays Guy, a silver-haired fox who joins the group of elderly residents at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In the clip, he talks about the focus of "Second Best" shifting to the younger couple, Sonny and Sunaina, played by Dev Patel and Tina Desai, as they prepare for their marriage. Gere notes that this opens the story up to a lot of possibilities.
This is also the biggest mis-step for "Second Best". Because of this narrative change, we spend less time with the seasoned British thespians, all of whom are gathered for a better quality, land-locked version of "The Love Boat". And because of this change, we spend more time following the 'hilarious antics' of Sonny as he tries to deal with a big potential business deal with an American company that would allow him to buy the property for the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a secret visitor from the company to inspect his hotel and make sure he is running a smooth operation, his neglected fiancee and his upcoming marriage. Watching Patel run about, flailing his arms, shouting, bugging his eyes out, while everyone else around him is acting more or less normal, makes him seem like a bad caricature. It feels like I was watching an actor do a live-action version of Apu from "The Simpsons".
Watching Patel quickly becomes painful and you begin to wonder how anyone thought his performance would ever blend in with the likes of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy. All are great actors, who are good in this film. But you would be hard pressed to call them 'animated'. Yes, Patel is probably five or six decades younger than each, but that doesn't excuse his exaggerated, over-the-top acting. It is really remarkable that Patel and director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) didn’t realize this was happening and put a stop to it.
The reason for most of the hysterics? He gets a bee in his bonnet that his fiancee is attracted to a rival. This is a narrative device older than most and doesn't seem any fresher, or more realistic, here.
Picking up eight months after the first film, "Second Best" begins with Sonny and Muriel (Maggie Smith) taking a trip to San Diego. They are there to meet with the owner of a chain of retirement hotels (David Straitharn) with the hopes of getting an investment, to open the second location of Sonny's dreamed-for business empire. Frankly, this segment is just odd. It doesn't provide many laughs because it basically concentrates on Patel waving his arms around and acting like a buffoon. It provides Smith with a brief moment to show her true British colors, but this could just as easily have been accomplished in India. The fact this company is bringing two people from India for a meeting and then sending a mystery inspector back to India to inspect the hotel before making the deal seems counter-productive. Why not just meet Sonny and Muriel in India, at the hotel, and kill two birds with one stone? If the filmmakers made this bit of the story more logical, it would also get rid of this tiresome segment and improve the film overall.
Returning to India, Sonny is anxious to reconnect with Sunaina and finish preparing for their wedding. But two new guests show up and they only have one room left. Livinia Beech (Tamsin Grieg, Showtime's "Episodes", "Friday Night Dinner") arrives first and naturally gets the remaining room. But Guy Chambers (Gere) arrives shortly after. Because the American businessman said he was going to 'send his guy to check out the hotel', Sonny assumes that Guy is the guy and gives him the best room, leaving Livinia to take the unfinished room. Guy insists he is there to write a book and he begins to make some of the other residents hearts flutter faster. Unfortunately, you can probably already guess how this bit of the story will play out.
It is difficult to get past this, but if you are able, you will find some good, not great work by the group of British actors playing retirees discovering a new, richer life in Jaipur, India.
A quick recap of all of the elderly British residents... Evelyn (Judi Dench) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) are still doing their little dance around one another, both scared of making a commitment to one another. Just as Douglas seems to have worked up the courage, Evelyn is offered a full time job as the head of operations for a new clothing manufacturer, promising a lot of travel around India to secure fabrics. For some reason, this seems to put Douglas off a little. Muriel (Smith) is still the co-manager of the successful hotel and seems to have done an almost complete 180 degree turn. If she doesn't like everyone, at least she now likes many of the Indian people she has contact with on a daily basis. Madge (Celia Imrie) is splitting her time between two wealthy Indian men, trying to decide who she should allow to marry her. Because she spends so much time in her car, she ends up spending more time with her driver, Babul (Rajesh Tailing). And Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Carol (Diana Hardcastle) are still together, yet Norman suspects Carol of having an affair. Add Richard Gere to the mix, to make-up for the character played by Tom Wilkinson in the first film, and you have a full house again.
All of the British actors are good, but their stories are rather slight and mechanical in "Second Best", much like they were in the first entry. What makes “Best” better than “Second”? There was an element of surprise in learning who these characters were and a delight in rediscovering some of these actors, especially having all of them together in the same story.
Maggie Smith and Judi Dench are the linchpins here. Muriel is growing as a human being, even so late in life, and it is nice to watch her become a kinder, gentler person - to a certain degree. She seems to have turned her short- temper and irritation from people who were once strange and unusual to her - towards the people who are all too familiar. But even when she has a sarcastic word for Evelyn, or Jean (Penelope Wilton, who manages to make an appearance), she seems to have lightened up a bit. She has taken Sonny under her wing, trying to help him become a better man, a better businessman and a better fiancee.
Judi Dench returns as Evelyn, who now has a job to keep her busy and help pay her rent for the hotel. She seems thoughtful and pensive and is still trying to deal with the heartbreak that led her to India in the first place. But as her feelings towards Douglas grow, she seems to become more unsure if she should follow her heart and begin a relationship with him.
Bill Nighy has perfected characters like Douglas - the laconic, unsure, quiet, lanky male who has trouble asserting himself - playing a variation in almost every film. Douglas, henpecked by Jean, seems as unsure of whether he should commit to Evelyn as she is.
They simply need a nudge, or six, to get them to realize they need to be together. As each goes about their day, they meet new people, or interact with strangers, who witness their interest and their desire for one another. More than once, one of these people offers an esoteric thought which prompts them to think in a new way about the other. Then, a few minutes later, they seem to forget the bit of advice they just received. Which means they need another 'reminder'.
Celia Imrie plays Madge, torn between her two wealthy suitors. Everyday she has to decide to which to spend the morning with and which to spend the afternoon. In reality, she spends so much time with her driver she begins to enjoy her time with him even more.
Ronald Pickup is the Dev Patel of the British contingent. Pickup's Norman gets involved in a subplot that would make the writer's of "Three's Company" wince.
Tamsin Grieg is a very funny woman. I have seen her in a bunch of television - "Episodes", "Friday Night Dinner", "Black Books" - and she has demonstrated a unique deftness at mixing physical and verbal comedy. In "Second Best", she is pretty much wasted. As soon as she shows up, Sonny gives Lavinia terrible treatment, forcing her to assert herself and interrupt most conversations between Sonny and Guy, trying to speak up and get some benefit out of her vacation.
Gere joins the cast as Guy, a would-be author who has come to India to write his long-gestating book. Guy has the silver hair of the other group, but the women seem to fawn over him because of his looks and he is a good deal younger than they are. He just seems out of place at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a residence for retired people. Gere tries to compensate by toning his energy down, but he still seems out of place. Guy seems to fix his eye on Sonny's mother. And Sonny is only too glad to pimp her out, if it means he is able to close the deal for "Second Best".
And that is one thing this film does successfully - close the deal to be "Second Best".