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Entries in Grand Budapest Hotel/The [2014] (1)

Thursday
Mar202014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

A Few Reservations

After a decade-and-a-half of searching, I've finally found a Wes Anderson film I can tolerate. In fact, I really enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel, and am eager to see it again. If it weren't so Wes Anderson-y, I might have even loved it.

Forgive my ignorance of history and geography as I launch into this synopsis. It appears as though Anderson (who, along with co-story-writer Hugo Guinness, was inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig) has fabricated a world similar to ours, but with locations and timelines that are decidedly different. Essentially, The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place in Europe during the 1930s, as a brutal, Germanesque regime comes to power. Offset from this harsh reality is the titular mountaintop resort, whose erudite epicure of a concierge is M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). He has a thing for wealthy, old ladies, and the death of his latest meal ticket, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), sends him skipping between countries to collect a valuable painting she'd willed to him.

Thanks to his lousy reputation, the widow D's family (led by Adrian Brody's hot-headed gangster-type, Dmitri) not only challenges his inheritance claim, they accuse him of murdering her. Before long, Gustave is on the lam, dodging a witless police chief (Edward Norton); working with a gang of cunning misfits whose boss (Harvey Keitel) takes a liking to his quirks and smarts; and fending off the dumb, brutal bully (Willem Dafoe) that's been hired to bring him in. Yes, in many ways, this is just an adult retelling of Anderson's forbidden-love kid comedy Moonrise Kingdom (complete with an adolescents-dangling-from-a-building climax), but it really, really works this time.

For starters, the story is nice and dense. Unlike other Anderson pictures, the overloaded cast isn't just an excuse to elicit cameo giggles (with the exception of Bill Murray and Bob Balaban). Grand Budapest overflows with fun characters pushing along a complex, twisty plot--as opposed to spiritually dead, slack-jawed ciphers who only serve to remind us of how thinly stretched the proceedings are. I haven't even mentioned the "main" character, a teen bell boy named Zero (Tony Revolori) and his spunky girlfriend, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan); nor the Russian nesting doll of a flashback structure that features F. Murray Abraham as the elder Zero, speaking with Young Writer (Jude Law) in the 1960s--who grows up to be Tom Wilkinson in 1985; who appears in a home video that is watched by a relative after visiting his grave decades later. For once, Anderson has applied the same visual obsession that compels him to bisect every frame to wholly immersing his audience in a wide, weird universe.

Or maybe he's tried that before, and I'm just now noticing his wizardry. That's entirely possible. Most of the characters and situations from his filmography run together in my mind. But his latest film shows an emotional maturity--indeed, an understanding of human behavior--that is noticeably lacking in his other movies. Much of this is thanks to Fiennes, who creates such a lustful, vivacious, and yet proper character in M. Gustave that the rest of Anderson's stable (and Anderson himself) seems to have finally realized it's okay to smile. I was genuinely amused, from just about beginning to end--which is a huge step up from "squirming with rage".

Of course, we can't escape the Anderson-isms, and they're in full force in Grand Budapest. From the look-at-me set arrangements and frame compositions; to the occasional, conspicuously dull-eyed actor whose very presence is meant to elicit laughs; and random, ostensibly careless incongruities (such as performers not being called upon to do any kind of accent work, even though the screenplay and common sense dictate otherwise)--Anderson wastes just enough energy maintaining his "voice" to suffocate the new and non-precious material. Had he crawled out of his own head (or the opposite end, depending on your point of view) and truly channeled the brilliant energy that's all over this film, he might have walked away with a movie for the ages.

Instead, we're left with a really good film--not a great one. Now, at least, I'm convinced that Anderson has greatness in him. And, yes, I realize I'm one of the few people on the planet who watches his movies and needs convincing. I hope he continues to grow as an artist,*  and keeps making movies. If nothing else, Anderson riles my passions--which is why I often can't relate to the characters he creates.

 *For the record, I (mostly) take back what I said about him in the Moonrise Kingdom review.