Baby Boomers have had movies for years about the qualms of advancing age, but Generation X filmmakers are only just starting to approach the subject. John Madden’s The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—a sequel to his wildly popular film of three years ago—offers the same comforting mix of coziness and high spirits as the first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, though the blend is weaker this time. Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, featuring characters surprised to find themselves in middle age, effectively portrays the queasiness that comes from the sudden realization of passing time.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel brings back all the characters who were still alive at the end of the first film. As the new film opens, we see Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) whooping and hollering in a Mustang convertible barreling down a Nevada highway, to the terror of his passenger, Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith). Sonny and Muriel are in Las Vegas to confer with assisted living tycoon Ty Burley (David Strathairn) about financing the renovation and expansion of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Sonny bubbles over with enthusiasm about the opportunity. “If not now, when? If not us, who?” he exclaims to the ever-dubious Muriel. “Later. To someone else,” she replies.
This opening sequence leads us to expect delightful things of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Smith is as wily and witty as ever, and Patel makes Sonny one of the most joyously lovable movie characters in recent memory.
However, the new film deflates slightly once Sonny and Muriel return to India. Evelyn (Judi Dench) and Douglas (Bill Nighy), whom we thought were firmly established as a couple at the end of the first film, are still tiptoeing around the edges of their mutual attraction. Madge (Celia Imrie) is torn between two suitors, and Norman (Ronald Pickup), the Don Juan of the group, suspects his girlfriend Carol (Diana Hardcastle) of cheating. Without being quite what we expected, the situations still feel stale.
Meanwhile, Sonny’s planned wedding to his beloved Sunaina (Tina Desai) is jeopardized by the appearance of Kushal (Shahzad Latif), an old romantic and business rival of Sonny’s. There is humor in turning Sonny into a Tasmanian Devil of maniacal jealousy, but Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker let it go on too long, making Sonny actively unpleasant for a dangerously long stretch of the film.
There is also a new guest at the hotel--Guy Chambers (Richard Gere), an aspiring novelist who may or may not be a spy for Ty Burley, and who may or may not become a love interest for Sonny’s mother (Lillete Dubey). Gere is not at his best playing genial characters, but he looks good and does no harm.
The cinematography of Ben Smithard is just as glowing as that of Ben Davis in the first film, but this time Smithard allows just a little Slumdog Millionaire squalor to seep in. The purpose of doing so is unclear, since the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel franchise was meant to exist in a bubble of pure charm. Madden and Parker haven’t entirely forgotten this the second time around, but there are signs of their reaching irritably for depth. The ending celebration in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel outdoes even Slumdog Millionaire for joyous fireworks. However, Madden and Parker add a coda that is obviously meant to be poignant, but is merely disconcerting.
A different type of unease is at work in While We’re Young, in which documentary filmmaker Josh (Ben Stiller) and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) find the familiar landscape of their lives shifting around them. When we first meet them, they are contemplating the new baby of their friends Fletcher (Adam Horovitz) and Marina (Maria Dizzia) with a combination of bewilderment and guilt. The pattern of Josh and Cornelia’s life comes clear in their subsequent conversation. Cornelia had a miscarriage, and she and Josh did not attempt to have a child after that; they have not taken a vacation or left New York in years; and Josh has been struggling for eight years to complete a documentary that Leslie (Charles Grodin), Cornelia’s distinguished documentarian father, describes as “a six-and-a-half hour substitute for Ambien.” Josh probably will never complete the documentary, because he didn’t get the grant he needed to pay his crew.
Meanwhile, the 44-year-old Josh is getting unwanted intimations of mortality, such as his doctor telling him he has arthritis. “Arthritis arthritis?” Josh wails.
“I usually only say it once,” the doctor replies.
Trapped in dreariness, Josh and Cornelia find themselves rejuvenated when they make the acquaintance of twentysomethings Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Jamie, an aspiring documentarian himself, is a vinyl-collecting hipster proudly decked out in fedora and sockless wingtips; Darby, a doe-eyed blonde beauty, makes her own unusual flavors of ice cream and peddles them to markets in the Village.
Josh and Cornelia tag along on Jamie and Darby’s adventures, including a visit to a shaman whose ceremonies include drinking a potion that induces both psychedelic visions and vomiting. Not incidentally, the ceremony also induces some romantic feelings across marriage lines.
Josh finds himself imitating Jamie, to his detriment. His arthritic knee seizes up when he goes biking with Jamie, and his fedora makes him look like he’s on his way to the Bingo parlor. But Josh also soon discovers that Jamie is imitating him, in ways he doesn’t like. In addition, Josh discovers that Jamie doesn’t exactly share his standards of integrity. If you remember the differing standards of Albert Brooks and William Hurt in Broadcast News, you get the idea.
While We’re Young won’t satisfy viewers who are looking merely for a light comedy. Its male protagonists—Josh, Jamie, and Leslie—are all unpleasant at their core. Josh, in particular, is a world-class whiner of the sort only Stiller, Albert Brooks and Woody Allen can get away with playing. However, Baumbach’s film is firmly in the tradition of Allen and Brooks, portraying the angst of inward-looking, middle-aged men who are forced to consider what they believe, and why they live. Also, there are enough good jokes in While We’re Young to keep viewers chuckling. The final gag—featuring a baby and a Smartphone—is wonderful, and puts a sweet little underline to Baumbach’s point about the war between the generations.