THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (PG)
123 minutes/Opens tomorrow/*** 1/2
The story: In this sequel, with the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel up and running, co-managers Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) and British expat Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) consider buying over another hotel in Jaipur, India. The American retirement-hotel chain they woo for investment funds sends an undercover assessor to evaluate them. Meanwhile, the lives of the quirky, elderly British residents twist and turn as Kapoor prepares for his upcoming wedding with Sunaina (Tina Desai).
Right from the start, this movie tells you exactly what it is - it is the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel film.
Essentially, it cannot top the freshness, quaintness and charm of the 2012 original.
This one is entirely predictable, harmless and even a tad too concocted.
But just like the picturesque little Jaipur hotel at the centre of the story, this second best instalment is still very much worth a visit.
I mean, how can you forgo such a sweet and agreeable view of sunset in terms of both people and scenery?
To inject a new cultural component into its Anglo-Indian mix, the tale turns a little American.
Set eight months after the happy ending of the first movie, the management behind the hotel - primarily its hyperactive, self-styled entrepreneur Kapoor (Patel) - is eager to expand his haphazard empire into franchise greatness as he travels to San Diego, California, to meet potential American investors in the opening scene.
Kapoor has two things in his favour to woo the fat cats: a real live specimen of the geriatric set named Donnelly (the imperiously acerbic Smith) by his side and a spectacular eagerness to impress and slurp superlatives in such a breath-takingly clumsy way it qualifies as an exotic art form.
I challenge you not to giggle at this comical double act of English granny and Indian puppy which drives the heart of this sequel, no matter that very often, Kapoor's youthful enthusiasm and lack of social or terminal decorum do grate a little.
There is something very funny about this retreat for the Band Of Seniors where roll calls are made daily in the morning just to make sure that the elderly residents have not, you know, checked out in the eternal sense. "You, dear lady, are nearer to menopause than the mortuary," Sonny confidently assures a middle- aged, not-yet-decrepit newly arrived female guest as a well-meaning compliment.
Of course, it cannot be all hunky-dory here in both hotel management and human hearts.
To spice things up, there must be personal hurdles to overcome and epiphanies to be savoured for every individual.
Kapoor, consumed by his expansion plans, neglects his impending lavish wedding-of-the-year to his lovely bride-to-be, Sunaina (Desai), much to her consternation.
Worse, he is further distracted by the mystery of an unidentified American assessor, sent by the retirement-hotel chain he is wooing, to check his little lodgings out.
Surely the inspector must be the smooth Bill Clinton-lookalike American, Guy Chambers (Richard Gere), who has just arrived and deserves the best room of the house befitting a real president.
"The man is so handsome he has me urgently questioning my own sexuality," says Kapoor who takes an immediate lapdog shine to Chambers as the latter takes a disapproved shine to - awkward situation here - Kapoor's widowed mother (Lillete Dubey).
Meanwhile, the formidable Mrs Donnelly has a hidden, worrying health issue (the story is told from her point of view) as she assesses Kapoor like a fond grandmother and exchanges wickedly fun verbal punches with the equally formidable and most sensible Mrs Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench).
You do not know regal eye-rolling power, I tell you, until you see these two grand dames locked amusingly in grander ripostes over ageing knees.
But you do know that the splendid supporting cast of English golden girls and guys here are expertly skilled in making retirement in a retreat a most rejuvenating rebirth - Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Diana Hardcastle, Downton Abbey's Penelope Wilton and especially the gently tentative Bill Nighy, torn between two lovers (Dench and his own fear of starting over).
Their tight corner makes the Yankee intrusion here somewhat weaker by comparison.
Gere is very easy on the eye, but he seems too gimmicky a third-party invasion as though Anglo-Indian relations have been violated.
Which is why returning director John Madden (Shakespeare In Love) knows well enough to leave his winsome, likeable founding cast largely intact and thriving.
And to push the fearsome Smith and the fulsome Patel nicely right to the fore.
Their two cultures do not clash here.
They totally mesh.