dir: John Madden
Why wouldn’t you?
Why wouldn’t you make a sequel to such a successful movie? I mean, every white middle class Anglo-Saxon over the age of 65 in Britain and Australia was obligated by law to go and see the first one or risk having their Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and pensioner cards ripped up in front of them, so why not?
Well, call me the querulous voice of pedantic temperance: this flick really has no reason to exist, like most sequels. Was there anything desperately necessary for the makers or the characters to do or say?
No, not really. But many of these actors, being national treasures, deserve every opportunity to continue sitting there in front of a camera complaining about the pain in their hips or knees. And I begrudge them nothing. As long as someone gets them a nice cup of tea and puts a blanket over their knees.
With many of these elders, I could literally sit there watching them talk about tea or textile content percentages and consider it time well spent. They’ve earned it. Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith are Dames, for crying out loud. That’s not an exaggeration or a term of endearment. They’re literally Dames! As in knighted by the goddamn queen. If anyone deserves to coast along and not do much and still be thought of as wonderful, it’s them.
So, yeah, I’m always glad to spend time with them. Many of the other people in this film? Meh…
This film struggles, struggles mightily for reasons to justify its own existence, and some of the time it fails. Much of the time, especially when characters were pursuing time wasting subplots and personal, very dreary stories, it really looked quite desperate. Some of it looked like the kind of pointless busywork they give kids at school in the last week of term or oldies in an old folk’s home craft activities which just keep them occupied until, well, you know.
But some of it is fruitful. Sonny (Dev Patel) has completed his transformation from a hyperactive Indian sprite into a genuine contemporary subcontinental update on Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers; the pope of hotel managers everywhere. His hyper-verbose dialogue and angrily ecstatic delivery has, at least in my eyes, gone from being almost on the edge of irritating to becoming quite delightful.
I laughed many a time at many of the things he said and, more so, at the delivery. There is an almost unhinged obsequiousness and manic quality attached to many of his actions and especially his words. You often get, as with Basil at his best/worst, the feeling that Sonny is barely keeping it together and could go on a shooting spree at a moment’s notice.
And who could blame him? Well, pretty much anybody. Whatever progress he may have made as a character by the end of the first movie, also directed lazily by John Madden, has to be rolled back in order to get him to basically the same place he was at the beginning of the first flick. Same could be said for many of the other characters as well.
Despite the years (four of them) that may have passed between the instalments, in the film’s universe it has only been several months since the end of the first one. Evelyn (Dench) and Douglas (Dame Bill Nighy) are still coyly dancing around each other like they were in the first flick, too afraid to do anything about the burning passion in their dusty loins.
Sonny’s success in keeping the hotel/retirement village afloat mean that he’s looking to expand, in order to give himself a source of conflict to animate his agitation for the next two hours. Of course the first flick established that he was a terrible manager / entrepreneur, and that only under the stern tutelage of caustic Muriel (Dame Maggie Smith) would it stay afloat. In this instalment, Muriel’s as caustic and scathing towards all around her, but she’s looking out for his interests, sometimes in spite of Sonny.
Now we’re meant to think that he’s an entrepreneur again. Bad move. One doesn’t thrill upon seeing John Cleese bowing and scraping and then abusing his loyal customers because one expects to see an entrepreneur at work. It's the abuse and the scraping they're there to see.
I wouldn’t invest a single red rupee in any enterprise attempted by Sonny, but I’d pay a certain (modest) amount to watch him aimlessly flailing about. Muriel spearheads the trip to San Diego which opens the film, as they court investors for the expansion. She impresses the serious man with the serious beard of some obvious importance (David Strathairn) for some reason (by abusing someone who tried to serve her tepid tea), and he implies that someone will be out to look over the hotel shortly.
A secret undercover inspector, you say? Considering the place never gets new guests that we’ve ever seen, and the pensions of the pensioners propping the place up presumably go straight into Sonny’s mum’s bank account, any new arrival to the hotel could be treated with the suspicion they rightly deserve.
Richard Gere turns up. Richard Goddamn Tiffany Gere. I’m not kidding, that’s really his middle name. Tiffany, not Goddamn. To say he adds little, if anything to the film, would be an understatement.
He does bring a certain amount of unconvincing awkwardness to the proceedings. Watching him interacting with Sonny’s mum (Lilette Dubey) is excruciating, utterly excruciating. They have an agonising scene together where he talks at length about himself, and then tells her how she thinks about what he’s just said, and what she’s likely to think going forward. As a scene convincing us that despite her protestations, that she’s warming to him, and that there is the possibility of romance / hot fucking, the scene is an abject failure.
As a scene that should be edited out and shown to people fighting their sexual desires, as an absolute anti-aphrodisiac, as a supreme form of birth control that even godbotherers would agree with, the scene is pure magic. The scene could be shown to at-risk teenagers and convince them never to have sex again for the rest of their lives.
It’s such a horrible scene. And it’s capped off with the unlikely arrival of Sonny to cockblock (or perhaps clitblock would be more appropriate) his mother, trying to stop her from carrying through with that which he pimped her out for. It has the dual depressing purpose of confirming that Gere’s character’s appalling patter somehow penetrated her defences, leading to further, um, penetration, and that Sonny’s obvious jealousy over his mum getting some can lead to nothing good.
Not in a nation where wives are still thrown onto funeral pyres, and not by themselves or their abject grief, but by the husband’s clan. That scene was the truest indicator of how much this is most certainly a British movie for a Brit audience rather than an Indian flick for an Indian audience.
Just to be awfully glib, the Indian film version would have had the noble mother stay true to the memory of her husband and her son’s honour by staying celibate until the very end of her days, or drowning herself afterwards in shame. How’s that for an uplifting family moment?
To be sure, the pleasures the film offers are in the interactions between the characters we (perhaps) care about, and the actors we know and like. Maggie Smith’s character is cruel-sounding and acerbic at almost all times, but that’s why she’s a delight. She may be just delivering a more withering but less class conscious version of the Dowager Duchess character she assayed on Downton Abbey, and it may indeed be slumming for her, but I cared, at least, when she spoke. She fares way better than many of the other characters, even if it just involves glowering at people or shutting them down verbally.
For Nighy and Dench, sure, this kind of acting is barely a step up from television work, and there is practically no believability to their relationship, but they’re sweet in their tentative fumblings towards each other. They can imbue anything, no matter how mundane, with humour and pathos. They’re such deft old hands that trifles like this are still fun, still enjoyable to watch, even if it isn’t that substantial.
If the first film had virtue, it was that it made India look pretty, it had a central manic performance and an array of old hands playing characters who were mostly likable. This second trip to the dusty well doesn’t fare as well. There are characters here given stuff to do, and I could not have cared less. One old guy is convinced that he has accidentally put out a hit on his partner, and it’s not just the dumbest subplot in either of these films, it’s one of the dumbest subplots in any film ever. There are episodes of Days of Our Lives with less dumb subplots than that.
But Jaipur still looks beautiful. Clearly they filmed it in winter, up north, because despite this being India, people are wearing coats and jackets all the time. Although old people do feel the cold, I’ve heard. It’s a pointless trifle, with a measure of pathos (especially Maggie Smith’s character, who gets a long, long valedictory voiceover towards the end and yet still somehow remains ambiguous as to what actually happened to her), a terrible introduction of new characters (Richard Gere is terrible), and pointless business subplots. But hey, I didn’t mind it too much.
6 times this does not inspire me to live out the rest of my days in India out of 10
“I came to pay my respects. There's nothing I respect more than someone planting trees under whose shade they may never sit.” – The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel