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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): Written and directed by Wed Anderson.  Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Tony Revolori.  Running Time: 99 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            When looking at the general body of Wes Anderson’s work, it’s all too easy to see his strange mix of the outlandish and the dark as simply the strange, meaningless byproduct of a person too caught up in his own fantastical whimsy to be able to piece together something of genuine substance or deeper emotional importance.  And without a doubt, his methods and styles of telling his tremendously strange tales lend themselves to such misinterpretation, making no effort to bring uninitiated newcomers in on the joke.  Which is, for me, tremendously unfortunate, because when I look beyond the unabashed silliness in his movies, I find a treasure trove of interpretation, symbolism, allegory, and philosophical commentary that is clearly the product of a piercingly intelligent and sharply organized mind, albeit a partially insane one.  This became clear to me after seeing Anderson’s previous film, Moonrise Kingdom (which I still consider to be a minor masterpiece), and this impression has only been strengthened by his newest contribution to the world, The Grand Budapest Hotel.  

            The story begins in the future (relative to the main plot), working its way backward before skipping forward again.  A young girl, all alone, enters a graveyard to hang a key on the tombstone of a writer, obviously honored as a national treasure, made clear by the rows upon rows of shiny, gaudy room keys covering the stone marking of his final remains.  The girls opens the book (titled, of course, The Grand Budapest Hotel), and we suddenly jump back in time, seeing the writer as an old man (played by Tom Wilkinson), who begins to explain to us (and it is most definitely us, not some off-screen cameraman) how he chanced across the story of the hotel. 

            This leads to the next time skip, as Jude Law, playing the writer as a younger man, visits the hotel in questions shortly before it was torn down for being unprofitable (and, let’s be honest, for having become a massive, Soviet-esque eyesore).  During his stay, he encounters Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the mysterious owner of the hotel and a number of castles around Europe.  After meeting him in the baths, Zero agrees to tell the writer the story of how he came into possession of the old establishment. 

            We are now led once more into the recesses of time to the main story.  Zero, a young refuge, successfully wins the confidence and respect of Gustave H. (a magnificently comical and boyish Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the Budapest when it was still the go-to, gloriously tacky resort for all manner of aged, wealthy clientele.  Gustave rules this establish as a benevolent dictator, exacting in his standards, yet given over to composing his own, God-awful poetry and reciting it at every staff dinner.  Zero is a slight wisp of a lad, soaking in every word Gustave tells him, determined to make his mentor proud. 

            While not necessarily the focus of the story, it is the relationship between Zero and Gustave that provides most of the film’s emotional center.  At first, it looks like their characters and interactions will be nothing more than skin-deep farce- Gustave is overweening, pompous, and demanding to a ludicrous extreme.  Zero is wide-eyed and innocent, merely seeking to become a carbon copy of Gustave.  Thankfully, Anderson very quickly moves to dissuade such notions almost from the get-to.  Gustave strives so very hard to be the model of a respectable, “civilized” gentleman, yet he sleeps with nearly all of his regular clientele (the gender of a given client being of no apparent concern).  He is unfailingly polite even when threatened with death (which soon becomes a regular occurance), but when his patience runs out, few sailors in the British navy could hope to match his verbose swearing.  A working-class background is hinted at, but never explored, leaving the man an enigma wrapped in a mystery.  Zero is equally complex, although we do get a bit more of his backstory.  He has seen tragedy and war, but never allows its terrors to prevent him from seeking love in the form of a village bakery girl.  And his determination and resourcefulness soon win him not only the respect, but eventually the deep love and friendship of Gustave.  Instead of staying in rigid, master/apprentice roles, the two become a dynamic team in every sense of the word, and seeing this change wrought over time is not only funny, but also immensely touching at times. 

            Zero’s love for said bakery girl, Agatha, deserves special mention, even though it is not a terribly large part of the film.  This is not deliberate ignorance on the part of Zero, or even Anderson, since it is quite clear that the focus is on Zero and Gustave.  Her few moments are, however, suffused with a love and a reverence that few protagonists manage to show for their significant others.  They may not be on-screen together for long, but their few scenes together, along with a minor reveal concerning the future of Zero’s ownership of the hotel, provide some of the more genuine romantic moments I’ve seen in theaters in recent years.  

            To briefly return to the aforementioned story- the second act of the movie kicks in when one of Gustave’s favorite elder female guests, Tilda Swinton looking unrecognizable in old-lady makeup, dies under suspicious circumstances (a failure to resolve this part of the story is one of the film's few flaws).  He immediately falls under suspect, primarily because the woman willed to him an immensely valuable painting, which her vicious son (Adrian Brody) is determined to regain.  To this end he lets loose his vicious attack-dog of a lackey (a wonderfully evil William Dafoe) to keep the family lawyer quiet (Jeff Goldblum) and to make sure Gustave meets a brutal end before he can discover the secret of the woman’s horrible murder.  What follows- a serious of chase sequences, prison happenstances, an encounter with a secret society of hotel managers, enchantingly beautiful cakes, and the takeover of the Budapest by an SS mock-up called the “ZZ”- is not something I can delve into without spoiling the whole, wonderful affair.  Suffice it to say that it is a wonderful journey well worth every minute spent in the theater. 

            The constant theme woven throughout the story is the paradox that is humanity’s ability to be both beautiful and brutal, and how the two are never fully reconciled with each other, and perhaps never will be.  And if I had to sum up the film in one sentence, it would be in the form of a question related to this very conflict- are our efforts to hold back the base, the rude, and violent in ourselves noble and brave, or pathetic and hopeless?  Is Gustave a tragic hero for striving to desperately to maintain his tiny little oasis in a sea of darkness?  Zero himself, as an old man, confides to the writer that he’s never sure Gustave’s world existed in the first place, or if it did, “it died long before he was born.”  He then adds an afterthought, which only adds to the ambiguity of what the answer to my question is, if such an answer is even relevant; “He certainly did his best to maintain the illusion.” 

            The Grand Budapest Hotel is every bit as wacky, zany, and whimsical as we’ve come to expect from Wes Anderson.  Like with Moonrise Kingdom though, the silly is permeated with a sense of nostalgic sadness, whispers of things lost, and things that never were, and never could be.  Its outer appearances to the contrary, it is a weighty film, another wonderful accomplishment from one of the most unique filmmakers alive today, and a resoundingly strong start for another year in film. 

-Noah Franc 

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