The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox Searchlight Pictures, R)

grandbuda 75Instead of celebrating one of our most reliable, idiosyncratic directors, there’s a part of me that kind of wants to see him fail 

 

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I was an assistant manager at a Blockbuster Video when Rushmore came out on VHS in 1999, and I got in many, many fights with random people about it, wherein I stood up for its merit and everyone else thought I was crazy. This scenario seems about right for Wes Anderson movies: Something about them still feels like they’re rare finds, too intelligent and obscure for consumption by the uneducated masses. I’ve been a fan of Anderson’s since before RushmoreBottle Rocket is the only one of his films I didn’t see in its original theatrical run, though I did see it just after it came out on VHS—and he’s never made an outright bad movie, but these days instead of celebrating one of our most reliable, idiosyncratic directors, there’s a part of me that kind of wants to see him fail.

But, well, apparently he can’t, as his new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is another winner. It might come as a bit of a shock for some people, as it’s a lot more mean-spirited than the films he’s been making lately (remember that Moonrise Kingdom was rated PG-13 and Fantastic Mr. Fox PG), but that really just harkens back to the Rushmore days and the tone of his earlier movies. The meat of this film takes place between concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, for whom I don’t usually have much use, but he is great here) and his new lobby boy, usually just referred to as “lobby boy,” but actually named Zero (Tony Revolori). The action occurs in their titular WWII-era hotel in the fictional, vaguely Eastern European country of Zubrowka. Gustave and Zero get into a bit of a caper when one of the former’s many older female lovers, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, heavily made up), wills Gustave a coveted painting, which her family basically refuses to give him. Gustave has the spirit of adventure in him, though, so he just takes the damned thing, which sets off a whole slew of events among the enormous cast of characters.

This story is told by the older Zero (F. Murray Abraham—delightful) to a writer (Jude Law) who is staying in the then–mostly defunct hotel in the 1970s or so. Then the film as a whole is framed by that writer, again aged and this time in modern times (played in this era by Tom Wilkinson), who has turned Zero’s story into a book. The nesting-doll effect of the framing devices doesn’t really add much to the film, although all three timelines have their share of amusements. Another odd distraction on this front is that Anderson switches aspect ratios constantly, assigning a different one to each time period: the ’40s are in 1.33:1, the ’70s in 2.35:1, and the modern era in 1.85:1. Anything to get people to keep going to the theater, I guess, as for this reason (and many others), this film won’t work as well when you try to watch it on your widescreen TV at home. (Side note: A chase sequence toward the end is worth sitting in the very front of the theater for; you’ll thank me later.)

Anderson has never had any trouble finding capable actors for his roles, but here he outdoes himself with both regulars (Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson), new regulars (Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel), and total newbies (Fiennes, Abraham, Revolori). Apart from Fiennes, who easily has the most prominent role (although Revolori gets a lot of screen time, he’s mostly just a wallflower), the most memorable are Brody as Madame D.’s hateful son Dmitri and Willem Dafoe as Jopling, a scary man working in the service of Madame D.’s family. Dafoe here is a few steps back toward playing Max Schreck again, and he’s clearly enjoying himself in such a role of caricatured evil.

Perhaps the reason why I semi-subconsciously seem to want Wes Anderson to fail is because in the years since I felt like I discovered him he’s actually gotten popular; he no longer needs to be fought for, as pretty much everyone now seems to like him. But still, there’s me being idiotic: Not only should I be happy to have a director like Wes Anderson still kicking out a great film every couple of years, but also that audiences now are apparently a lot smarter than they were 15 years ago. | Pete Timmermann

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