New films: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Focus

Judi Dench as Evelyn Greenslade and Bill Nighy as Douglas Ainslie in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Judi Dench as Evelyn Greenslade and Bill Nighy as Douglas Ainslie in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

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Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and co return to sunny climes in the feel good sequel The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (PG)

Towards the end of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a secret inspector is asked for an honest assessment of Jaipur’s luxury development for residents in their golden years.

The inspector concludes that behind the scenes, management of the hotel is shambolic but unerring affection for the staff makes it a four-star destination for “the elderly and beautiful”.

The same honest appraisal applies to John Madden’s entertaining sequel: Ol Parker’s script is haphazard and several plot strands are flimsy but our emotional investment in the characters papers over the cracks.

Audiences who check in to this second chapter will be treated to the same pungent Jaipur backdrops and good-humoured service, with a fresh lick of dramatic paint courtesy of new arrivals, played with easy-going charm by Tamsin Greig and Richard Gere.

The dashing star of American Gigolo and Pretty Woman takes on sex symbol status here, causing groom-to-be Sonny (Dev Patel) to quip, “The man is so handsome, he has me urgently questioning my own sexuality.”

At 65 years old, Gere evidently still has it.

While the first film was lovingly adapted from Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel tumbles straight out of the scriptwriter Parker’s imagination.

He struggles to provide each resident with a compelling narrative arc: some are surplus to requirements while others relish the trials and tribulations that test fledgling romances and fractious friendships to breaking point.

Sonny and business partner Muriel (Maggie Smith) travel abroad to seek investment for a second hotel from business chief Ty Burley (David Strathairn) and return to India, mindful that funding is dependent on a review from a secret inspector.

“How was America?” asks Evelyn (Judi Dench), welcoming them home.

“It made death more tempting,” retorts Muriel.

English traveller Lavinia (Greig) and American novelist Guy (Gere) arrive soon after and Sonny is convinced that Guy must be the inspector so he ignores Lavinia and lavishes attention on the writer.

Guy’s arrival sends Madge (Celia Imrie) into a swoon - “Lordy lord, have mercy on my ovaries!” she swoons - while Douglas (Bill Nighy) struggles to communicate his feelings to Evelyn.

Meanwhile, Sonny is pre-occupied with his impending nuptials to Sunaina (Tina Desai) and a simmering rivalry for his fiancee’s affections from snake-hipped family friend Kush (Shazad Latif).

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel delivers the same winning formula of laughter and tears, eliciting strong performances from Dench, Nighy and Smith at her acid-tongued, indomitable best.

The course of true love, even in twilight years, never runs smooth and Parker composes variations on a theme of amour, while peppering his script with pithy one-liners.

“There is no present like the time,” professes one wise soul.

Madden’s film is certainly a gift: you get everything you expect but nothing more.

RATING: 7/10

FOCUS (15)

The con men and women who bluff, distract and double-cross in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s light-fingered drama, operate by clearly defined rules.

They perform hundreds of petty thefts rather than one major heist because there is safety in volume, they refuse to steal from the vulnerable, and they never allow sentiment to cloud their cold-hearted, cash-oriented judgement.

“Love will get you killed in this racket,” grizzles one veteran of the hustle.

It’s surprising then that Ficarra and Requa ignore their character’s pithy advice and stake heavily on a fraught romance between their anti-hero, a consummate con man, and his sassy sex-bomb protegee.

The writer-directors’ gamble might have paid off if lead actors Will Smith and Margot Robbie were gifted snappier dialogue, and their bedroom scenes were choreographed with passion rather than softly-lit precision to kindle smouldering on-screen chemistry.

As it is, the biggest con in Focus is not the climactic swindle, which strenuously tests the bonds of honour between thieves, but the sizzle of that central relationship, which supposedly pushes both characters to the edge of reason.

Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) is a master of misdirection, who can sweet-talk cynical targets into falling for his money-making schemes.

Aided by a large crew of pickpockets and accomplices including right-hand man Horst (Brennan Brown) and technical wizard Farhad (Adrian Martinez), Nicky follows the money.

During carnival season, he operates out of New Orleans and becomes amorously entangled with novice Jess Barrett (Robbie).

“You get their focus, take whatever you want,” explains Nicky, teaching her the tricks of his shady trade.

After one major sting, Nicky acknowledges his distracting feelings for Jess and he terminates the relationship.

Three years later, Nicky is in Buenos Aires at a race car circuit for a scam involving team owners Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) and McEwen (Robert Taylor).

The stakes are high and Garriga is protected by a straight-shooting bodyguard called Ownes (Gerald McRaney), who thinks sleep is for wimps.

“I’ll lie down when I get cancer or when I have sex,” snarls the heavy.

Just as Nicky is poised to initiate his elaborate scheme, Jess reappears and throws the veteran con man into an emotional tailspin.

Focus is a familiar tale of old scoundrels performing new tricks, which lacks the erotic charge of the co-directors’ previous film, Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Robbie is luminous and makes Smith seem lifeless, confirming her ability to steal a film after eye-catching work opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf Of Wall Street.

Ficarra and Requa engineer a dramatic crescendo at the end of the first hour against the backdrop of an American football game.

The second act in Argentina is an anti-climax by comparison that plays its winning hand far too early.

In the absence of jeopardy, we lose everything, especially interest.

RATING: 5/10