Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel Movie Review

I’ve just written about Rushmore and touched on the great stylistic difference between Wes Anderson’s earliest films and the techniques he uses in his latest. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a great example of how Anderson’s stylized world, whimsical flights of fancy, and self-conscious artifice have grown and joined together to blend into a harmonious vision.

I was a true Anderson enthusiast through The Royal Tenenbaums, but he lost me until Fantastic Mr. Fox, which struck me as the absolute perfect representation of what he has always tried to accomplish. The Grand Budapest Hotel has brought him back completely into my good graces and though it contains moments that are so previously Wes Anderson-y that it risks becoming a parody of his own style, it somehow reached me in surprising and new ways.

There are few American filmmakers and fewer still who have anything close to the mainstream success Anderson enjoys, who manage to achieve such unique visionary storytelling. Grand Budapest suggests that Fantastic Mr. Fox, rather than being a logical next step for a man obsessed with artificial reality, was a mere prelude and experiment for new combinatory ways of telling a story. Here he employs elements of stop motion animation, miniature models, rear projection, and other method that call attention to the artifice of motion pictures. There are few, if any, practical locations featured in the film a la the Tenenbaum house. The exterior of the hotel and the funicular train to get there are models. Even the setting is a fictional country overrun by fictitious fascists, however much they resemble Nazis.

The story is told as a flashback within a flashback beginning with an author (Tom Wilkinson) in 1985 recounting a time twenty years earlier when, as a young man (played by Jude Law), he met the Mr. Moustafa, owner of the famed hotel (F. Murray Abraham), who proceeds to tell the story of how he cam into such ownership. We then jump back a further thirty years to when this  man, known as a lad as Zero (and played by Tony Revolori), was a brand new lobby boy under the tutelage of the great concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).

The yarn he spins is a grand adventure full of intrigue, murder, mystery, imprisonment, romance, fascists, and an impending war that will change everything. Recounting the plot, even summarizing the story, is sort of beside the point, It could be about anything really. It’s the presentation that matters. That and Fiennes’ brilliant acting. His eloquence with language is breathtaking and perhaps no other actor has ever brought so much to a role in one of Anderson’s movies. Well, maybe Tilda Swinton in Moonrise Kingdom. She makes an appearance, albeit brief, here as Madame D, a wealthy old crone who occasionally takes M. Gustave to bed. When she turns up murdered, Gustave goes to prison, where Harvey Keitel turns up as a fellow inmate and helps him escape and then Edward Norton, playing Henckels the faux-SS officer, tracks him down. Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Fisher Stevens are fellow concierges at other renowned hotels who band together to aid him. Saoirse Ronan is Zero’s love interest, Agatha. The villains are Adrien Brody as Dmitri, Madame D’s son, who wants a large inheritance, and the family muscle, played by Willem Dafoe. Jeff Goldblum is the executor of the estate, too strict about following the letter of the law for Dmitri’s taste.

That I’m merely listing off these recognizable actors is to reflect the way Anderson tosses them into, in some cases, fairly minor roles. This demonstrates the desire of so many talented people to work with him, but also fits further into the artifice he’s building. Every celebrity appearance brings with it a moment of recognition that forces the viewer to remember that he’s watching a construct. That’s the real pleasure of the film is simultaneously being drawn in to such a fantasy with all its drama and high stakes (always played for much less significance than you would expect) and being constantly aware that you’re watching a fiction unfold. Anderson has developed and matured into a unique voice. Rather fittingly I’m simultaneously annoyed, perplexed, and enthralled that he still makes the same kinds of films again and again.

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