Friday, April 4, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Alternate Title:  Hijinx Ensue

One sentence synopsis:      The concierge and lobby boy of a classic European hotel are caught up in a murder mystery involving a wealthy heiress and priceless painting.

Things Havoc liked:  Last year, I described The Butler as having the single most loaded cast I'd ever seen. Apparently Wes Anderson doesn't like being one upped, because for the latest entry in his endless series of strange, right-angle films that are not entirely fantasy and not entirely not, he has assembled a simply ludicrous cast, a cast so loaded that veteran character actor Bob Balaban is billed eighteenth, and to recite the entire list would be to consume half the review with names. Just assume that all of the various actors you've come to associate with Wes Anderson (Murray, Norton, Keitel, Swanton, etc...) are all here, along with a bunch of new arrivals, every one of whom (with one exception, to be discussed later) is a veteran, seasoned actor, each one at the peak of their game, and you'll begin to see why this movie is being discussed in such glowing terms.

Set in a fake Austria-Hungary in between the world wars, The Grand Budapest is a quintessentially continental luxury hotel, dressed up like a wedding cake with an army of staff to cater to the nobility and the super-rich. Presiding over this stately chaos is concierge Gustave H, played by Ralph Fiennes, who not only runs the hotel but draws its elderly, sex-starved (yes) clientele to the place so as to avail themselves of his hospitality. Gustave is a vain, insecure man who seduces rich, elderly women, not simply out of venial greed (though there is that), but plainly because he needs the approval of someone at all times. As the film commences, Gustave takes in a new Lobby Boy (Tony Revolori) as errand runner and lobby steward, shortly before one of the elderly ladies that Gustave has been wooing is found dead of poison, amidst complications involving the widow's will, her greedy son, his lawyer and hitman, and, of course, murder allegations that immediately begin to swirl around all of the above. Indeed, the plot is almost purposefully overcomplicated, the better to turn the entire affair into a grisly, wacky, typically Anderson-esque farce. Fiennes, presiding over all of this madness, is perfectly in his element here, playing a cross between Jeeves and Peter Sellers, a character who gets neurotic about things that should prove meaningless (his brand of perfume), and perfectly blase about things that are matters of literal life and death (fascist death squads). He rides the line of madness and playing it straight as though he's been in Wes Anderson's films for years. I've never seen Fiennes give a bad performance (The End of the Affair was not his fault), but this is unquestionably one of his best.

But Fiennes isn't alone in delivering a winner here. I promised I wouldn't give a recitation of the infinite names associated with this film, but I can't proceed without talking about Adrian Brody, an actor I've always disliked, or Jeff Goldblum and Willem Defoe, two actors I secretly adore. Brody here, playing the son of the murdered widow, takes his performance from Midnight in Paris and presses the Asshole button until it breaks, becoming a murderous psychopath with one foot squarely in the Snidely Whiplash school of villainy. Goldblum plays Brody's family lawyer, in whose hands the probate of the widow's will is placed, and Dafoe his personal legbreaker, who over the course of the film breaks far more than that. It's true that Goldblum is largely playing himself, and that Dafoe is simply channeling his native creepiness (something he is well supplied with), but Wes Anderson likes to play with actors' archetypes in fun ways, and watching these two ham it up in their customary fashion is something I could go on with for days.

Anderson is a highly visual director, a term I use with precision in his case. He enjoys establishing fixed tableaux and presenting his characters before them, with his cameras moving only when absolutely required. This film exhibits his tendency towards such things far better than most. The hotel itself is cavernous, filmed in loving wide shots to take in its grandeur (or lack thereof as time goes by), as are the other monasteries, prisons, and castles that the film takes place in. Bright, primary colors are the rule, even in dismal prison scenes, where tiny splotches of color from pastry boxes (or arterial spurts) contrast off the overwhelming backdrop. The writing is Wes Anderson's writing, a bit more polished than usual here, filled with lines that would be punchlines if every person in the film did not seem entirely incapable of appreciating humor in a normal, human way. People complain in other films about wooden line delivery. In this one, it's the intended result.

Things Havoc disliked: Fiennes' counterpart through all this madness is newcomer Tony Revolori, playing Lobby Boy Zero Moustafa, and though I hate to come down on a newcomer, he's simply not up to the task of dancing with Ralph Fiennes. Where everyone else recites their lines in a wooden fashion because they choose to, one gets the sense with Revolori that he is doing it because that's simply how he acts. Perhaps it's a more difficult task than I imagine to be good at acting poorly, but either way, Revolori just doesn't have the chops for what he's up against. Neither, incidentally, does his love interest, Saoirse Ronan (of Hannah and City of Ember), who shares in Revolori's inability to act badly well. Fortunately, there is no shortage of characters that ARE capable of such acts, but when these two are the only ones on the screen, we go from a quirky movie to a badly made one, if only for a moment.

There's also an issue with the plot. I know, I know, the plot in a Wes Anderson film is secondary, but it's at least usually complete. The sheer number of plotlines, side characters and juggling acts that this movie has to keep spinning is breathtaking, and before the second act is over, the film has to start jettisoning characters and plotlines like a balloon aviator trying to lighten the load. Bit characters are fine, and Anderson's films are known for the weird, never-to-be resolved sideroads branching off the main plot, but this is the first time I've seen him drop entire major plotlines without resolution. Perhaps there's some sort of message being delivered here, and my issue is not that certain things turn out badly, but that some of them end with almost violent abruptness, a voiceover to explain what happened, and then nothing more. Perhaps Anderson is trying to make some kind of verisimilitude point or playing with our expectations or something, but it's not unreasonable for a viewer of a film to ask a filmmaker who establishes a major question as the driving force of his movie in the first half hour of it, to at least answer the question in some regard throughout the rest of the film. If the answer had been some artistic point regarding the inability to know certain things it would be one thing. But the impression we get from this film is that he simply forgot.

Final thoughts:   I doubt seriously that he forgot, of course, and as evidence I have to point to the overall quality of the film, quirky though it is, replete with wonderful set pieces and memorable shots, set up in Anderson's trademark style. The acting is uneven, but a cast like this is simply incapable of being bad, even, apparently, when instructed to try, and the overall effect is glorious insanity, the sort of thing that most of Anderson's movies eventually devolve into, celebrated in vibrant technicolor by an artist given license to do whatever the hell he wants.

A reviewer in my neck of the woods described this film as the movie Wes Anderson has been promising to make for the last decade. Unfamiliar as I am with the promises Anderson has or has not made, I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it is certainly a superior film, funny and farcical and insane in all the right ways. I've always sort of liked Anderson's movies without loving them, but this is as close as he's ever come to changing my mind on that score. Well done.

Final Score:  7.5/10

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