Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Léa Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban
Running Time: 99 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)
One thing Wes Anderson's never been accused of is his films having an overabundance of plot and action. Even his best work is thought of as primarily aesthetic achievements, his stories serving merely as backdrops for highly stylized costume and production design and visual flourishes. In some ways, the highest grossing and most favorably reviewed film of his career, The Grand Budapest Hotel, doesn't represent a deviation from that classic Anderson template. And yet it also somehow does. This is the closest he's come to directing a screwball action comedy and it contains more story and characters than most would know what to do with. For the first hour I thought I was watching a masterpiece, but by the second he kind of lost me, before recovering and delivering something that's still special. There's a nostalgiac sadness hiding under the humor  that stays with you, as the many colorful characters populating the hotel mourn an era that's rapidly slipping away, or in the case of some, slipped away a while ago. But at the same time, the whole thing still manages to be a lot of fun.

Featuring a story within a story within a story, the film opens in the present day with a teenage girl reading the memoir of an unnamed "Author" (Tom Wilkinson), who narrates the book from his office in 1985, recalling his stay at Europe's Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968. It was then, with the hotel clearly in decline, that the young Author (played by Jude Law) encountered its elderly, reclusive owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, he tells him the incredible story of how he took ownership of the hotel. We flash back to 1932 when young Zero (Tony Revolori) worked as a lobby boy under the Grand Budapest's eccentric concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), running errands and tending to the guests.

It's when one of Gustave's many older, wealthy mistresses, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies under strange circumstances and she leaves him a valuable painting, he finds himself at the center of a murder investigation and the target of her son Dmitri's (Adrien Brody) hired assassin, J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe). With the help of Zero and hotel baker Agatha (Saorise Ronan), he must evade capture and clear his name, even as war breaks out in their Republic of Zubrowka, signaling a cultural shift that will heavily impact all their futures.

I want to live in this hotel. That was my first thought upon seeing the majestic structure, which is rendered not by some fake looking CGI in wide, exterior shots but an actual handmade miniature model. Remember those? But it's what happens inside that ends being more impressive, with some jawdropping production design that makes you anxious to discover what secret or character is hiding behind every corridor, room and crevice of the building. The atmosphere may draw you in, but it's the story that keeps you there, as there's this pervading sense of melancholy that distinguishes it from Anderson's other work, despite still being very recognizable as such. The story's not only bigger than usual for him, but broader in scope and crossing over multiple timelines.

While Anderson's a filmmaker almost compulsively obsessed with the past, he's at least now found the ideal outlet by creating a story where all his characters are equally obsessed. Nearly every recognizable name in this fully stacked cast is given at least a moment or two to shine, but the the movie really hangs its hat on the friendship that develops between Ralph Fiennes' witty, somewhat delusional Gustave and his impressionable young lobby boy, Zero, played by newcomer Revolori. Not necessarily known for his comedic skills, Fiennes gives what may be his most memorable performance since his very different one in Schindler's List, while Revolori makes the perfect straight man to his zaniness. Of the rest, Goldblum and Ronan each make valuable contributions, while Jude Law and F. Murray Abraham breath real life and history into roles that could have come off as expository or mere bookenders. The rest of the cast have what amount to cameos, checking the usual boxes of Anderson's favorite actors. If pressed, the section during which Gustave and Zero find themselves on the run from authorities is the weakest, before the story regains its footing in the last third.        

This is actually one of Anderson's messier films, but that's of little consequence considering how ambitious the undertaking is and the ease by which it would rank amongst his most visually daring. He really swung for the fences this time and there's explanation as to why it all works other than the fact that he's become a brand unto himself, with no other filmmaker viewing the world quite like he does. As usual, his whimsical style perfectly suits oddball material, but it isn't calling as much attention to itself as it is reflecting the story's darker themes. And this is all about telling stories, to the point you could easily categorize it as a great epic novel put to film, right down to the impeccably realized hotel of the film's title, which seems as much alive (or in some cases as dead) as those inhabiting it. The more you start considering how much he accomplished here, the larger it looms.

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