Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I half-joke about thinking I like Wes Anderson less than I do in the eFilmCritic review, but there's a germ of truth in that description. When I was linking reviews in last week's "Next Week in Tickets" post, I noticed that I gave his films consistently high marks, only really hating The Darjeeling Limited. Maybe it's just the fact that he can take a few years between movies, giving a bad impression time to fester and maybe infest one's opinion of something like The Life Aquatic, which I quite liked at the time but now I can barely remember other than Harry Selick's animated creatures.

In a somewhat weird way, I almost feel bad about being unsatisfied with his movies at times. The one I mentioned disliking is also arguably the one where he is trying hardest to communicate something personal and emotional , so it almost feels kind of hypocritical to get frustrated with how his later films like Moonrise Kingdom and Grand Budapest can almost seem hollow. Not quite, but he certainly sometimes seems to leech the life out of those movies by focusing so squarely on the technical minutia and noodling that the amount of attention being paid to that makes it hard to think about anything else.

Indeed, the way he seems to be so carefully targeting something in this one made me hem and haw on the star rating a lot more than I usually do or want to. For the bulk of the running time, this movie got full marks for making be laugh, but something about the end rubbed me the wrong way, and though it's one minute or two that doesn't really counter the rest... Well, spoilers after the EFC review.

In the meantime, it opens tomorrow in Boston, with limited locations but a lot of screenage where it is playing, and I recommend it highly. It's a fine and very funny comedy, and deserves to be loved for that.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre #1 (first-run, DCP)

When trailers for The Grand Budapest Hotel first started appearing a few months ago, I felt some apprehension. Not so much because I often think I like director Wes Anderson less than I do, but because a large fraction of the enterprise seemed to rest upon Ralph Fiennes being light and funny, and when has that ever happened on-screen? It happens here, though, with Fiennes one of the major moving parts that keeps Anderson's meticulously constructed machine moving.

Fiennes plays Gustave H, the head concierge at a resort hotel in a small Eastern European country who sees to the guests' every need with efficiency and a certain variety of perfumed charm - especially the rich old ladies. When one (Tilda Swindon) kicks the bucket and leaves Gustave a priceless painting, her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) is enraged; he has a Pinkerton-type thug (Willem Dafoe) frame Gustave for her death. It becomes a game of cat-and-mouse, with Gustave, lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori), and Zero's beloved Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) facing war, secret societies, and murder most foul.

There are plenty of other players involved, to an almost absurd degree. The list of on-screen talent for this movie reads like the work of a downright gluttonous casting director, and they are stuffed into the film in every way possible. There are a couple of gags whose entire punchline seems to be "hey, isn't that [famous actor]?". There are folks buried under so much makeup that one wonders why the filmmakers didn't just cast someone age-appropriate. There are quick glimpses of analogous characters that make one wonder about alternate casting scenarios where Bill Murray or Bob Balaban took Fiennes's role. And finally and firstly, the main body of the movie is contained within no less than three layers of bookends, allowing multiple different characters to look back and be played by more than one actor. Wes Anderson has always assembled cool, star-studded casts, but one wonders if he is engaging in some sort of self-parody here.

Full review at EFC


What ticked me off about this movie? A seeming inability to recognize when "happily ever after" isn't a cop-out, even if the movie in question is squarely aimed at adults. When F. Murray Abraham's narrator mentioned that not only did Saoirse Ronan's Agatha die just a couple years after the happy ending being shown on screen, but so did Zero's and Agatha's newborn child, I couldn't help but think, why you gotta be a jerk like that? This thing is already a fantasy, and you've already supplied some irony by having Gustave end tragically just as he emerged from his amorality. This just feels like deciding that grown-up movies can't have happy endings, and it maybe makes the filmmakers feel more clever to talk about sadness but show happiness. The thing is, this movie really doesn't have the thematic heft for that sort of mixed emotions at the end. It's muddying up something that, even when it was serious, was still pretty escapist.

Plus, I couldn't help but feel, this is Anderson, and I found myself imagining him pondering just what was the proper amount of buzzkill. Agatha dying apparently wasn't enough to make Zero melancholy for the rest of his life, so add in the child. But don't actually show that; it would make the audience too depressed. And so on. Every filmmaker does this, of course, but few are known for their obsession and precision quite as much as Anderson, so instead of being organic or emotional, the mind jumps to pure mechanics.


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