Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Considering his now-infamous filmmaking style, it's rather surprising that it has taken director Wes Anderson this long to make a farce. His precise, diorama-like frame construction and living-dollhouse worlds are the perfect setting for quick, controlled chaos to unfold, and his films always have a biting sense of humor that always seems just a few steps removed from madcap screwball. The Grand Budapest Hotel, his latest film, promises a classic farce through Anderson's skewed lens, and for the most part, the film delivers on that promise.

The film mostly takes place at the titular hotel in the fictional European nation of Zubrowka. In 1968, an author (Jude Law) visits the hotel and encounters its proprietor, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Zero proceeds to tell the author the story of how he came to own the hotel, beginning in the 1930s, just before the outbreak of WWII. Young Zero (Tony Revolori) was a lobby boy at the hotel, under the guidance of concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a much-beloved figure and notorious womanizer (particularly older women). When one of his conquests (Tilda Swinton) dies and leaves him with her prized painting, Gustave and Zero find themselves at odds with the woman's son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who despises Gustave, and his threatening thug, Jopling (Willem Dafoe). The two of them soon find themselves framed for the woman's murder and on the run from Jopling, the Zubrowkian authorities, and German troops under the command of Henckels (Edward Norton).

As far as Anderson's films go, The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps his most plot-heavy. The result is a film that's plenty imaginative, but feels just a little overcrowded.

More after the jump.

Anderson's films have always been classified as "comedies," and indeed, they all have a wry sense of humor about them. But the comedy in his films has always been human-scaled and character-driven; the humor emerges organically from the characters' personalities and relationships with one another, and there's almost always a heavy melancholic streak running through each film (this is true even of Fantastic Mr. Fox). These films are funny, but they're funny less because of "jokes" than they are because of empathy with the characters.

The Grand Budapest Hotel still magnificently draws humor from its characters, but there's more situational comedy present here than in his previous films. As previously mentioned, this film is more plot-heavy, and not just in the main narrative. There are several other subplots working tangentially to the main caper, including the manhunt for missing butler Serge X. (Mathieu Amalric) and Zero's romance with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a baker's assistant. It's a testament to Anderson's screenplay (the story is co-credited to Hugo Guinness) that the film is able to balance all of these threads, tying them together in unexpected and exciting ways. And a lot of this is credit to Fiennes' remarkable central performance, which exudes confidence and charisma even though Gustave is a pretty rotten human being at his core.

This is another point that sets the film apart from Anderson's previous works: it's his most mean-spirited film. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; for one, the film's farcical elements are borrowed in equal measure from both the films of Ernst Lubitsch as well as Looney Tunes, both of which had their fair share of viciousness. The film plays it's prickliness well, too, not only in Fiennes performance but also in Revolori's, who makes being downtrodden into a sly art, and Dafoe's, who manages to twist his foreboding presence into something that feels both frightening and humorous. However, a little more warmth would certainly be welcome in the film.

The biggest issue with the film is that it feels too crowded. While the story does a terrific job of balancing the various plots and letting the chaos unfurl in hilarious, exciting ways, there are simply too many cameos that prove distracting. An opening scene in 1985 features Tom Wilkinson presumably as the writer Law plays in 1968, but he's never seen again. Similarly, the cast also features Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Kietel, Lea Seydoux, and Anderson regulars Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Bob Balaban, but none of them play characters that hang around long enough to make an impact. Having so many recognizable actors in so many minor roles ultimately proves distracting, taking away from some of the fun of the film.

Overall, though, these are only minor quibbles in what's ultimately a very enjoyable film. It doesn't quite carry the hallmarks of Anderson's best works, but it proves that even his lesser films are fascinating and worth watching. A

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