Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) ***1/2

Wes Anderson is known for making the kind of film you will like if you like his kind of film. Starting with “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” his storytelling has relied on exaggerated, even bizarre characters. As he moved into the years of “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” his characters, costumes, and backgrounds became increasingly weird. Anderson's is a world of bright, primary colors and bright, primary people. Everything is so removed from real life that at times it is hard for me to get invested. His films remain watchable, however, due to his sense of humor and his compassion for the absurdity of the human condition.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is very much a Wes Anderson movie, and you can largely predict whether you will like it based on your response to his other films. This belongs in the top half of his works, largely due to excellent work by Ralph Fiennes, who plays Monsieur Gustave, the perfectionist concierge of the titular hotel. M. Gustave demands the best from himself and his staff, taking time off from his work only to bed the rich, elderly women who frequent the hotel. He isn't a gold-digger. He seems to view making love to these women as part of providing the absolute best experience for clients of the Grand Budapest. In any event, he likes older women. As he explains to his young protege, Zero (Tony Revolori), “When you're young, it's all steak filet, but when you get older you have to go for the cheaper cuts, which, anyway, I find more flavorful.”

When one of these wealthy dowagers dies, leaving M. Gustave a priceless painting, he is thrust into a web of intrigue with her greedy children (including Adrien Brody), an assassin (Willem Dafoe), and the police (including Ed Norton). Gustave is framed for the woman's murder, escapes with fellow prisoner Harvey Keitel, then crisscrosses the country to prove his innocence.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is action-packed, but it is the kind of brightly-colored, Keystone Cop action that dominates Anderson's movies. I was rarely on the edge of my seat. The action and characters were too cartoonish for me to suspend disbelief. I couldn't shake the feeling that all these excellent actors had gotten together for a dinner party, raided the closets for costumes, and were putting on a silly play for the entertainment of the other guests.

The real charm of the film is its story-within-a story framework. The movie starts with a young woman approaching the grave of a famous writer, then sitting down to read one of his books. That book is “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and in it the writer describes how he visited the hotel in its decline and met its mysterious owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Moustafa is the aged Zero, and he relays to the writer the tale of his adventure with M. Gustave, who wound up owning the hotel and ultimately passing it on to his loyal protege Zero/Moustafa. Intertwined with the tale is the tragic story of Mr. Moustafa's one, great love. Having these characters look back on the story from different perspectives over the decades lends the tale a poignancy that belies its cartoonish look. In this light, the stylized look of the film represents the way our memories look to us, and these tragicomic characters seem very real and beautifully human.

3.5 stars out of 5

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