“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Serves a Tasty, If Lightweight, Feast

Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)

In the past 20 years, the writer/director Wes Anderson has made just 5 short films and 8 features (including the stop-motion-animation Fantastic Mr. Fox). In spite of this (relatively) limited output (in the same time frame, the writer/director Woody Allen has released 20 features, or one a year), Anderson has developed a strong cult following. His films feel truly unique, and uniquely designed: every frame is carefully planned; every action taken and word spoken seems to emerge from the brain and vision of an auteurist director with excellent control over every single detail the audience sees.

Anderson’s films are a delight to his fans, and a welcome reprieve from the ubiquity of sameness that so often pervades Hollywood blockbusters. Unfortunately (for me), that same tight control also lends his films an air of artifice that often keeps the viewer at a distance from the emotional lives of the characters: we always observe, but never participate. I love Wes Anderson films; I hate Wes Anderson films. I admire his style and panache, but often wish there was less of both. The only one of his films that truly captivated me was Rushmore: somehow (and maybe because it was the first film of his I saw), the artifice worked as a brilliant expression of a precocious teenager’s soul. Every time the house lights go dark on a new Wes Anderson film, I hope for a new Rushmore, and I am always disappointed. Nevertheless, I keep coming back, which is a testament to how glad I am that an artist such as Anderson exists.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is no Rushmore, but it’s still a lovely refuge for a certain kind of cinematic delight, nonetheless. Anderson seems to acknowledge his own tendency towards artifice right at the start: first, when the vocal music on the soundtrack transforms into yodels from the mouths of three men on a bench past which the camera glides; and second, when the establishing panorama of the Grand Budapest Hotel shifts between the virtual and the actual, with a hand-crafted paper model of the mansion morphing into the solidity of stone. It’s a beautiful opening, but one that presages Anderson’s usual prioritizing of style over content.

The film takes place primarily in 1932, but the main story is framed – as if inside a Russian nesting doll – within three later time periods: the present (or something later than 1985), 1985, and 1968. Each layer is peeled back until we arrive at the hard center, where the marvelous Ralph Fiennes resides. He plays Monsieur Gustave, the concierge at the titular hotel, who runs his establishment with a firm hand and strong aesthetic sensibility, and makes a habit of sleeping with his elderly lady clients (though he is gay). His faithful (platonic) companion – a novice aptly named “Zero” (relative newcomer Tony Revolori, quite good) – accompanies him everywhere, even to the funeral of one Gustave’s paramours. It is at this funeral, after a series of delightfully frivolous set pieces – all scored with jaunty balalaika music by composer Alexandre Desplat – that the plot kicks in. Gustave is named as a partial beneficiary of the will – his gift is a painting named “Boy with Apple” – and the family (composed primarily of Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe, both in full psychotic mode, especially the latter) objects. The drama that erupts will eventually lead to much gruesome violence (severed fingers, a dead cat), many deaths, jail sentences, beatings, and much more. On the horizon looms the Nazi menace. Is this film a metaphor about the savagery that lurks below the veneer of civilization?

Quite possibly, but it’s all staged so giddily – even the severing of those fingers – that it’s hard to get a grasp on tone. It is this inability to be sincere, even for a moment – along with the excess of surface style – that always leaves me fatigued and annoyed at the end of most Wed Anderson films. But if you are up for a wildly inventive journey, and are a fan of any of these actors – Fiennes, Brody, Dafoe, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, and/or Bob Balaban (what actors are not in this film, you may ask) – then chances are you’ll have a good time. And if you are a bigger and more constant fan of Anderson than I am, I suspect you will love the film. It is unmistakably his.

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