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'Exotic Marigold Hotel' reopens for romantic old folks

One wedding, one divorce, two fraught business deals and a still-impressive ensemble cast populate "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," a certified follow-up to 2011's "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." When, in a pre-title sequence, Maggie Smith's Muriel Donnelly calls a cup of tea "tepid nonsense," it's fair to wonder if we're in for two hours of the same. Though the film won't be to everyone's taste, returning screenwriter Ol Parker and returning director John Madden keep a collective eye on the quality control, delivering an amiable sequel that will surely please fans of the first film.

Whereas the first film derived from a novel, Parker's screenplay this time is original, and he does a fair job of loosening and fraying the bows he neatly tied three years ago. All of the still-living characters from the first film return, played by the same actors, and the sequel proposes romantic complications for the couples while offering up some fresh romance for the unattached.

The opening shot is a surprise, placing Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) and Muriel -- co-managers of an Indian hotel "for the Elderly and Beautiful" -- in an iconic American landscape. Their overseas jaunt sets up the investment consideration of an American hotel magnate (David Strathairn), who promises to send an undercover hotel inspector to check out the Jaipur establishment and a potential second property. That promise serves as the spine for this mostly conventional light farce, with Sonny nearly unraveling while trying to please the presumed inspector (Richard Gere's Guy Chambers) and not ruin, through inattention, his pending wedding to Sunaina (Tina Desai).

Eight months have passed since the events of the first film, and Evelyn and Douglas (Judi Dench and Bill Nighy) have gotten off on the wrong feet in their relationship (it doesn't help that Douglas is still married to Penelope Wilton's Jean). Meanwhile, Sonny's mother (Lillete Dubey) and Madge (Celia Imrie) find romances in unexpected places, and Norman and Carol (Ronald Pickup and Diana Hardcastle) troubleshoot their relationship in an irreverent subplot that adds a touch of tartness to the confection. As for Muriel, her withering wit remains intact, even in the face of new business and personal crises.

Though Gere's American twinkle makes for a slightly jarring addition to this essentially British comedy, "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" shows little strain in maintaining its cute factor, thanks to the drily winning personalities of the likes of Smith, Dench and Nighy, and the comic ebullience of Patel. Believe it or not, Parker quietly clears room for a "one last ride" sequel if this film performs well (and why wouldn't it?). For now, "Second Best" offers viewers one more chance to savor late-blooming romance, played out across long summer days and sultry Jaipur nights. As the film's carpe diem message goes, "There's no present like the time."

Rated PG for some language and suggestive comments. Two hours, 2 minutes.

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Short story writers wanted!

The 33rd Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult (15-17) and Teen (12-14) categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by March 29. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category.

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