RATING |

What are Dev Patel and Dame Maggie Smith doing in a Mustang convertible, rolling down Route 66, the radio blasting George Thorogood and the Destroyers? That's how The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel begins - determined to throw audiences enamored with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel wildly off their guard. Instead of dodging moto-rickshaws in bustling Jaipur, India, the stars are rocketing the blacktop en route to San Diego. What gives?

The sequel to the surprise 2012 hit may start off on another continent, with Smith admonishing all of America for the pitiful manner in which tea is prepared and served. But it doesn't take long for the improbable co-managers of the titular hostelry - Patel's young, eager-to-please Sonny Kapoor, and Smith's, not-young, nothing-pleases-her Muriel Donnelly - to return to the land of Raj.

Nor does it take long for the John Madden-directed follow-up to settle into a familiar, familial groove, reintroducing the British pensioners of the first film - Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie, and Smith - and providing accommodations for new guests, most notably one beamy, white-maned Richard Gere.

Once again scripted by Ol Parker, The Second Best etc. etc. shows signs of creaking sequeldom early on. Not just with that Stateside prologue - Sonny and Muriel meeting a potential backer for the acquisition of a second "luxury development for residents in their golden years" back in India - but in picking up the tentative romance between Dench's widowed Evelyn and Nighy's Douglas, abandoned by his wife in the original.

Here are two smart, seasoned grown-ups who can't seem to summon the gumption to ask each other out, shying from any kind of commitment toward a more intimate relationship, even as all signs point to their inevitable coupling. Sure, septuagenarians can be as silly as teenagers, but in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it feels like it's the screenplay's machinations holding these two back, not the characters themselves.

Meanwhile, ex-pats Norman (Pickup) and Madge (Imrie) are running the Viceroy Club, facing big overhead and a waning membership.

He's in a relationship with Carol (Diana Hardcastle, returning from the first film), although the self-styled playboy's eye continues to wander, and he suspects her to be on a similarly non-monogamous track. Madge is running a game of courtship with two wealthy maharajahs, playing one against the other. Love, and the tooting of all those three-wheeled taxis, is in the air.

Like its predecessor, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is about people of a certain age - retirees, widowers, folks on fixed incomes with families long gone or living a long way away - rediscovering a sense of self-worth and self-renewal. And it is about the excitable Sonny, engaged to be married (Bollywood star Tina Desai plays his fiancée), jealous of suspected rival Kush (Shazad Latif), but distracted by trying to guess which new guest is actually a hotel inspector dispatched from America to size up the operation. Sonny is convinced the unflappable Guy Chambers (Gere), who claims to be a writer, is the man. Shameless fawning and lavish upgrades ensue.

All manner of subplots weave their way through the film, which teems with "colorful" characters and saccharine cliches. But, like the first film, it's next to impossible not to find diversion in the company of such stalwarts as Dench and Nighy and Smith. And George Thorogood is, happily, never heard from again.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel **1/2 (Out of four stars)

Directed by John Madden. With Judi Dench,

Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Dev Patel, Richard Gere. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.

Running time: 2 hours, 2 mins.

Parent's guide: PG (adult themes).

Playing at: Area theaters.EndText

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