THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Fox Searchlight, 100 minutes, R (because of totally innocent nudity, F-bombs, and paranoia!)
* * * *
Wes Anderson’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, isn’t as funny as it’s billed, but it’s a delicious romp and perhaps Anderson’s best realized film to date. Even when its humor falls flat, it’s wildly inventive and off-kilter.
Set in the mythical Alpine nation of Zubrowka, Grand Budapest Hotel is essentially a caper film centering on the swishy Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of an elegant hotel retreat/spa for fading European aristocracy and shady characters posing as genteel. The year is 1932, and M. Gustave is breaking in a new lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), an orphaned Indian lad in whom Gustave takes a shine. Are his intentions paternal, philanthropic, or sexual? It’s one of the film’s purposefully ambiguous questions; all we know for sure is that, though Gustave set offs gaydar a mile away, he definitely beds aging dowagers such as Madame D (Tilda Swinton). When she dies several days later and leaves an insipid but precious painting to M. Gustave, heirs led by thug son Dimitri (Adrien Brody channeling John Turtrurro) seeks to dispossess him. On a whim, Gustave and Zero steal the painting. Thus begins a madcap set of misadventures in which baddies, including the psychotic Jopling (Willem Dafoe), try to frame Gustave for Madame D’s murder and briefly jail him before he, with Zero’s help, breaks out of prison. The subsequent chase takes Gustave and Zero across the Alps by ski, snow machine, auto, train, and other forms of conveyance. Gustave calls upon a secret network of other concierges to stay one step ahead, whilst Zero longs merely to survive and marry Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a pastry chef’s daughter whose face is inexplicably marked by a stain in the shape of Mexico. Military police—led by Chief Hackels (Edward Norton)–also give chase against a backdrop in which war looms on the horizon. (The film is supposedly set in the Alps, but its politics seem a pastiche of the pre-World War One Balkans.)
From this you might deduce that the narrative is slight, and so it is. The film is really a series of offbeat sketches held together loosely by a (sometimes imposed) narrative. There are tasty cameos throughout (Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartman, Léa Seydoux) and the adjective ‘wacky’ probably best describes the movie’s tone. There is no attempt whatsoever at realism; many of the situations and hair-raising escapes are absurd, and the hotel and mountains are often represented as hand-tinted color cutouts. Anderson washes his film in those same washed out Instagram-like cartoonish colors—thereby adding to the notion that we are: (a) witnessing the fading of a way of life, and (b) you shouldn’t try to attach too much meaning to any of this. The film is also bookended by a prologue and epilogue held in the now seedy Grand Budapest Hotel, where a nerdy and reclusive young writer (Jude Law) seeks to prise the hotel’s story from its aging proprietor, none other than Zero–played by F. Murray Abraham, who looks about as Indian as a cannoli. Was the decision to cast Murray Anderson having us on one last time, or just sloppy filmmaking? You decide, but it is one of my reservations about the film.
The tone of Grand Budapest Hotel is evocative of Jean-Pierre Jeunet projects (Delicatessen, Amélie, City of Lost Children) but Anderson lacks Jeunet’s narrative talent and his understanding of irony. (Anderson often thinks that detached sarcasm is the same thing as irony.) I always enjoy Wes Anderson films; I’m yet to declare one a masterpiece. In some ways his is classic slacker filmmaking—offbeat and wild ideas that he thinks speak for themselves, even when they don’t. This film, like his others, is a mix of creative and conventional. The prison scenes, for example, are deliciously droll, but the chase sequences evoke the cheap jokes we saw decades ago in Pink Panther films. Nor does the omniscient narrator gambit rise to the level of innovative filmmaking. It’s convenient and nothing else.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is, though, visually entertaining and choked full of clever background jokes you need to stay on your toes to see. (Pay attention to the newspapers that appear on screen!) Fiennes is a hoot as Monsieur Gustave and Edward Norton chews whatever scenery Fiennes leaves undigested. Ronan wafts through the movie as an odd butterfly–often wordlessly strange, but always beguiling. Overall it’s a very pleasant way to spend 100 minutes–just don’t expect a masterpiece; Wes Anderson still has some growing up to do.
Postscript: Need more proof that the ratings system is a farce? This got an R for brief frontal nudity that’s no more naughty than an unruly school child, and I’ll bet that same kid drops more F-bombs as well. Titanic got a PG-13. Is that because Kate Winslet’s breasts are British and don’t count?