The Second Best…

It’s only fitting that the sequel to “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is about franchising, since the story deals with the hotel’s manager, Sonny Kapoor, wanting to branch out and create a chain. Most of the original cast returns, particularly Judi Dench as the earthy Evelyn, Maggie Smith as the crotchety Muriel, Bill Nighy as the sweet but romantically grounded Douglas and Celia Imrie as the perpetually amorous Madge. The elderly group, who make up the hotel’s clientele and mini-community, get into a tizzy when a mysterious stranger, played by Richard Gere, checks in. There’s also talk of Sonny’s wedding, though his unsteady balance of hotel management and being a fiancĂ©e put this into question.

While watching this unnecessary but pleasant sequel, I thought of a conversation I once shared with my friend, mentor and former college acting teacher, Sanne McCarthy. In addition to being my director, and teaching me the value of theater and the community it creates, Sanne was the first person to tell me about “Legally Blonde,” which she passionately recommended. I had no intention of seeing it (despite being a fan of Reese Witherspoon since her ’91 debut in “The Man in the Moon.”) and was puzzled why Sanne was so big on the movie. What she told me I found so endearing: “that movie doesn’t have a mean bone in its body.” I’ll state the same about this film, which, in addition to being so unusually warm-hearted, is never cynical. It never makes good on any hints that the story might head in dark directions. Even when topics like divorce and infidelity surface, the tone never becomes heavy handed or loses its soft touch.

There are lots of little scenes and subplots that aren’t fully developed and go nowhere, like an odd bit involving a husband who may have accidentally put a hit out on his wife. After the expected aging jokes and travelogue sequences, there’s still enough here to make it work.

Patel’s overly caffeinated Sonny is easier to take this time, as he has more to do than simply be the “wacky” manager. Gere is so loose and low key, he’s a welcome presence, even as his role doesn’t give him much to do. I missed Tom Wilkinson, whose character and journey was the best thing about the original. The emotional center this time is in Nighy’s character, who has a tough crisis to resolve. Nighy has a lovely chemistry with Dench and is such a splendid actor, he even sells the old comedy standby of a poorly reciting dialog fed to him in an ear piece.

Dench has my favorite scene in the film, in which she and her business partner creatively gain the upper hand while dealing with a sexist linen seller. The dialog is full of keepers, but Patel has the funniest line, where he comments on the oft-mentioned subject of Gere’s good looks.

The biggest problem is that it’s too long, dragging its feet to an inevitable conclusion. Dench is truly luminous and the cast appear to be digging deep and not simply playing cute (as in the first installment). While it balances the elderly and younger characters in ways accessible for both audience demographics, this is still the rare sequel aimed at older audiences. The film’s beauty and tender center are both rare and welcome, in a sequel that could have just been Grumpier Old Tourists.

Thankfully, it’s better than both “RED 2” and “Cocoon The Return,” and finds joy and genuine warmth in returning to these characters.

If there’s a third movie, I suggest The Expendables check in, making for a dream of an AARP cross-generational team-up.