Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Where do I even begin with The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)? Well, it's the latest from director Wes Anderson. That should tell you quite a bit; the movie contains his peculiar style of deadpan comedy, borderline fantasy, madcap adventure, and a touch of tragedy. It's got a cast comprised of many actors I like or have admired in other works including Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Anderson regulars Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum. Bill Murray also pops up for a scene.

But I'm still not sure of my response to the movie. Did I like it? Kind of. There are parts I found kind of funny, parts I found kind of moving, parts I think are kind of sad, and parts I think are kind of beautiful.

The first step to grasping, or at least enjoying, a Wes Anderson movie is accepting the world he has created. His movies are set in places that have a distinct artifice about them, a slightly askew sense of reality. Human beings inhabit them, and they have the same motivations that drive us - lust, greed, revenge, etc. - but they don't behave in a wholly plausible manner. Everyone and everything feels unorthodox. It's very stylish and very, very deadpan.

In the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, it's important to remember we're not seeing a "straight" depiction of the story; it's a depiction of an interpretation of a narrative of a memory. The movie begins in the present with a teenage girl approaching the monument of a famous, never named writer, and she carries a copy of the writer's memoir. As she reads it, the film jumps to the author, played by Tom Wilkinson, at his desk in 1985 where he begins narrating the book. From there, it moves on and shows the author in his youth, played by Jude Law, in 1968 as he visits the Grand Budapest Hotel, located in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. There, he meets the owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who tells him how he came to the hotel and how he came to own it. The bulk of the film is set in 1932, visualizing the story of how a young Zero (Tony Revolori) as arrives at the hotel and begins working as a bellboy for Monsieur Gustave H. (Fiennes), the debonair concierge.

The Grand Budapest Hotel has a lot on the table. There's the mystery of a missing will, a blossoming young romance, a country under the threat of war, a journey by railroad, an assassin working from the shadows, a butler with a secret in hiding, squabbling among heirs over the ownership of a valuable painting, a prison escape, a fraternal order of hotel concierges, and Gustave's various dalliances with the older women who stay at the hotel and enjoy the "exceptional service" he provides. Yet, the movie doesn't feel chaotic or busy. Rather, the narrative flows from one plot thread to the next, and because of the film's surreal style, none of them feel especially out of place. All of them are important to the history of the hotel, and like the characters, the viewers have to take everything in stride.

The film is colorful and not just because of it's characters and plot; the look of the film is filled with pink walls, purple uniforms, red elevators, and bright yellow lights. Exterior shots of the hotel itself look like a pastel painting. The world is one of artifice. Anderson, as in his other movie, uses a lot of closeups of his characters speaking directly ahead, and even the longer shots, whether of the front desk of the hotel or a group of prisoners plotting or Gustave and Zero sitting in a train car, are staged in head on shots, creating an often symmetrical, boxed-in feeling, like you're looking inside the room of a dollhouse.

Performances are solid, with Fiennes as the madcap ringmaster of the whole thing; there's just something about someone who's good at their job, enjoys it, and never waivers in the face of anything. Revolori is the relatively normal character, just trying to keep up with everything while Abraham as the older incarnation of Zero brings an element of pathos in his limited screen time. Also of note is Edward Norton as a surprisingly polite but ruthless fascist military officer. For some reason, Jeff Goldblum plays a lawyer who looks like Sigmund Freud, and his exit from the picture at the hands of Willem Dafoe is the funniest moment.

The effort and craft that went into The Grand Budapest Hotel is easy to admire. Some of the imagery is unforgettable, and I smiled a lot while watching the movie, but I'm not in love with it. There are a lot of small laughs but few big ones. The detached, deadpan tone is amusing and unique, but it also means it's hard for me to be invested in what happens. Hardly anyone in the movie seems particularly concerned by anything, so why should I be?

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