Friday, March 28, 2014
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Is Wes Anderson 101
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Review:
- I absolutely loved Moonrise Kingdom, because it felt like Wes Anderson was using all of his whimsical powers to give us not just a great-looking film, but one that had a soul and spirit to match its eye-popping aesthetics. It might just be Anderson's best film to date. Anderson's latest, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, has some of the director's most gorgeous and intricately-crafted visuals yet - but it feels more like an Anderson flight of fancy than grand statement. Rather than straining to push himself story-wise, there is, perhaps, a bit of wheel-spinning going on here. Still, this is an incredibly entertaining, visually-stunning movie filled with great actors and all sorts of fun little moments. Even if this one doesn't raise the bar for Wes Anderson films, it's still a finely-made showcase for the director's uniquely quirky obsessions.
Anderson often seems to have a lot of nostalgia for a version of the past that never quite existed. And that recurring aesthetic theme here becomes the main driver of the plot as well. The movie looks back wistfully at a fantastical hotel that sits atop a towering mountainside, accessible only by cable car. The day-to-day operations of the hotel are run by M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), who himself is a throwback - a gentleman's gentleman who is perfectly groomed and outfitted at all times, goes about his daily routines with clockwork-like precision, and who insists on the same from all under his employ. This holds true for the hotel's new bell-boy, a young immigrant named Zero (Tony Revolori). Soft-spoken but loyal, Zero is quickly taken under the wing of Gustave, and the two sort of become the fancy-hotel-worker version of Batman and Robin. That comparison holds even more true as Zero, through Gustave, increasingly finds himself wrapped up in an escalating series of misadventures. As it turns out, Gustave has a tendency to "service" the hotel's older female patrons in more than just the usual manner. And that gets him into trouble, when one of his favorite hotel guests passes away. The elderly woman, who over the years enjoyed many visits with Gustave, leaves to him - and not to her scheming, gothed-out adult children - a priceless painting from her art collection (the amusingly titled "Boy With Apple"). This makes Gustave a number of powerful enemies, and puts Zero in their crosshairs as well.
Adding an extra layer to the tale of Gustave and Zero is that it's told to us in flashback by a now-elderly Zero. By this point, the Grand Budapest Hotel is a shadow of its former bustling self, attracting only the occasional curiosity seeker and wanderer. Jude Law, playing an unnamed writer, meets Zero while staying in the hotel, and sits with him to hear his story. The film's structure - told as a sort of tall tale - fits well with its theme of nostalgia for a bygone era. The Hotel was a relic of a time when things were bigger and grander and more romantic, just like Gustave - whom Zero clearly has much admiration for - was a man of another, more refined era.
Ralph Fiennes as Gustav is the MVP of the film. He does a fantastic job playing the quintessential proper gentleman, who is forced by circumstance into many an ungentlemanly situation. Fiennes has shown in the past that he's great at playing larger-than-life, and that's what he does here. His comic timing is impeccable, and he has a great on-screen chemistry with his young charge Zero. The rest of the cast though is just completely loaded with great talent, all of whom are the sorts of reliable pros who excel at pulling off Wes Anderson's quirky characters. Willem Dafoe - who says little but owns the screen as a sadistic hitman - is a huge standout. So too is Adrien Brody as the vengeful son of Gustave's deceased paramour. Of course, an appearance from Jeff Goldblum is welcome in any film, but Goldblum is excellent (per usual) as the lawyer trying to settle the affairs of the deceased, even as various interests try to force his hand. Edward Norton is also good, as a police inspector whose path crosses multiple times with Gustav's.
There are also a boatload of great little cameos from Anderson regulars. I won't spoil who shows up, but I will say: one of the movie's most fun sequences involves the revelation that Gustav is part of a secret society of hotel managers, who all have each other's back in a crisis and who have quite the network of power and influence. Suffice it to say, the faces who turn up as part of said secret society are crowd-pleasers.
I suppose that some of the "lightness" of the movie comes from its relationships feeling a bit surface-level. Whereas Moonrise Kingdom had such a great central romance between its two young leads, the romance between Grand Budapest's Zero and angelic baker Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) feels a bit malnourished. Indeed, a lot of the film's characters are sort of one-note. But I guess that's a side-effect of a.) this really being the story of the mentor/mentee relationship between Gustav and Zero, and b.) the film being intended as less of a character piece, and more of a farce.
And the movie is at its best when it's at its most farcical. When things get really crazy, I think that that is when the movie hits its stride. For example, there's a late-movie downhill snow chase (how often do you see that?), in which Gustav and Zero - on a sled - pursue Dafoe's wily hitman - on skis - down a hilariously expansive trail. It's hilarious and awesome. Great, funny stuff.
And aesthetically, well ... this might just be the most Anderson-y Anderson movie to date. With scenes that often look like they were extracted from an elaborately-illustrated pop-up book, the movie has an eye-popping look and feel that indulges Anderson's most out-there visual instincts. Given that this is a whimsical, tall-tale of a story, however, it all fits to a T.
I really enjoyed THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, even if the details of the plot and the nuances of the characters are often muddled in the movie's pressing focus on the moment at hand. The film is more akin in some ways to a collection of quirky vignettes, each showing us the unflappability of Gustav and the stalwart admiration that Zero bestows upon him (even if Zero does get annoyed with Gustav's reflexive flirtations with Agatha). So no, the movie doesn't give you a ton to chew on, but it is a great exercise in stylized chaos from Anderson - a lightweight but entertaining study of Anderson's particular fascinations and favorite motifs.
My Grade: B+