Saturday, March 8, 2014

Review: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Director: Wes Anderson
Runtime: 100 minutes

When the first promotional materials for The Great Budapest Hotel arrived, many were quick to proclaim it, "the most Wes Andersonian movie ever." Though the connotation changed depending on the individual, this line of thought has largely remained unchallenged in the run up to the film's release. Anderson's films have always been highly stylized, but with Budapest, he seemed to be charging ahead into previously unknown levels of Andersonian-ness, for better or for worse. Level shot compositions? Check. Deadpan dialogue and performances? Absolutely. Quirkiness that's often in danger of slipping into cloying preciousness? Of course. 

With so many prepared lines and jokes about how Anderson seemed on the verge of self-parody, all that was left was to examine the finished product. In a way, the joking gut reactions were right. The Grand Budapest Hotel is unmistakably an Anderson film. But this is hardly self parody. Building on the momentum of 2012's excellent Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson's latest is a culmination of his style, and his evolution as both stylist and storyteller. 

Yet where his previous film took its time setting up its characters and only gradually pushed the narrative forward, Budapest finds Anderson hitting the ground sprinting. Split across three different time periods, the narrative unfolds in the manner of a Russian nesting doll, with flashbacks giving way to flashbacks, and so on. Unlike a nesting doll, however, the layers of Anderson's film grow larger as we're taken deeper into the narrative. The outermost doll, involving an aging writer (Tom Wilkinson) recounting an incident in his younger days (as played by Jude Law), is barely there at all. It would be tempting to label it superfluous, but it adds a nice accent to the the infinitely more eventful pair of layers that dominate the story.

The most important of those layers takes us to 1932, in the fictional nation of Zubrowska. In a lavish mountain resort (the titular hotel), we meet the promiscuous, eccentric concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), and his new lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori). Anderson has shifted his gaze from young love to the relationship between mentor and student, and it pays off rather brilliantly. The 1932 scenes dominate the film, with Fiennes and Revolori's unlikely chemistry acting as a lovingly silly anchor for the dozens of chess pieces moving around them. Fiennes, in particular, is outstanding, and proves to be a surprisingly adept match for Anderson's full throttle deadpan approach. His shifts from silky smooth calm to profanity-driven are perfectly timed, and only enhance the strength of Anderson's screenplay. 

Outside of Gustave and Zero, however, Budapest is more concerned with its narrative and structural intricacies than it is with fleshing out the rest of the ensemble. Thankfully, that's (mostly) the right decision. The supporting cast is filled with nice turns from an exhaustive list of previous Anderson collaborators (Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and aged-up Tilda Swinton), all of whom make a nice impression without throwing off the film's focus. The standout, though, is Willem Dafoe, whose inherently unsettling face is used for perfectly executed bits of dark comedy.

With so many players, it's remarkable just how effortlessly Anderson juggles all of the pieces of his intricate screenplay. At 100 minutes, it's hard to find a wasted minute. Anderson's pacing is snappier than ever, and it's complimented nicely by the sharp editing. I counted only one instance when I felt a scene was going on too long, and it wrapped up shortly after I had time to even make note of it.

More importantly is that Anderson is able to retain his distinctive voice while still focusing so heavily on plotting. Whatever parts of the trailers and clips looked like self parody fit perfectly into place in full context. The screenplay is stuffed full of good lines and exchanges, and the perfectly in sync cast hardly misses a beat. Visually, the film is easily Anderson's lushest, with the decades of change marvelously chronicled with the shifting interior designs of the hotel's lobby, as well as the vibrant costumes. Returning composer Alexandre Desplat adds a nice bit of extra momentum to the zippy pacing with his balalaika-infused score, ensuring that even the quieter moments are kept up to speed.

Where The Grand Budapest Hotel will likely prove divisive comes down to its darker elements. While Anderson has never exactly shied away from darkness, he certainly never dwells on applies it in a heavy-handed manner. The main flashback, though set in a fictional country, still takes place between the two World Wars, and there are hints of the oncoming destruction scattered throughout. There's also the nature of the violence that pops up in brief moments. Though the film is gorgeously designed and shot with the look of a fairy tale, it is punctuated by incidents of violence that are jolting. Not because they're particularly graphic, but simply because it sticks out and suggests a darker undercurrent to an otherwise charming world. Gustave uses the hotel to keep the changing world at bay, yet the moments of violence and darkness still find their ways in. It's not so much a battle between old and new as much as a test to see how long Gustave's old "civilized" world can hold out before caving.

These darker moments, however, are handled so efficiently that it's easy to understand why some would find Anderson's approach shallow. There's a lot going on at the surface of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but whether or not one connects to it will likely determine how much one feels is going on underneath the gloriously decorated facade. Personally, I found nearly everything about Budapest to be successful, even as I longed for a touch more of the humanity that Anderson brought to Moonrise Kingdom. But, of course, they're two very different types of films, and each demands a different combination of Anderson's expected ingredients. If Moonrise Kingdom was a small but shockingly satisfying dinner, then The Grand Budapest Hotel is his elaborate attempt at a desert. How much nourishment it provides will be up for debate, but you can't deny the thoroughly original level of thought that went into its execution.

Grade: B+/A-

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