Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Anderson Does His Thing and Does It Well With "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

An apprentice relationship is at the heart of The Grand Budapest Hotel.
In my review of Moonrise Kingdom, I floated the idea that writer/director Wes Anderson had reemerged as a critical darling after several years of stark criticism for his particular stylistic choices. I argued that he had done so by, oddly enough, leaning even harder into his supposed shortfalls – things like fussy production design, affected tone and stilted emotionality.

Well, you can double down on that notion with his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which focuses on the screwball consequences and whimsical violence that result when an elderly rich woman (Tilda Swinton) dies and leaves an invaluable painting to Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), her frequent lover and the concierge at the lavish Grand Budapest Hotel. Gustave is aided by his loyal lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori), all the while a fascist government rises in the background.

Once again, Anderson has been universally heralded for a film that very much dives down the rabbit hole. It’s simply amazing to me that people who found so many issues with underappreciated gems like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited would so readily herald Budapest, a production that is overwhelmingly concerned with artifice for artifice sake.

I don’t say that as a criticism – I greatly enjoyed the film, and am glad the critical consensus has come back around on (or, perhaps, finally caught up with) one of my favorite filmmakers. However, this is an odd movie for previous Anderson haters to love, because what starts out as a madcap crime caper evolves into mournful meditation on the lost appreciation of ornamental extravagance. Yes, I understand how they might appreciate that Anderson has found the perfect thematic match for his patented approach, but I would expect naysayers would scoff at such a message.

F. Murray Abraham shines in his first Anderson outing.
Budapest is as detached as any film in Anderson’s oeuvre – characters are murdered without pause and, in an epilogue, we learn of the terrible fates of several of our heroes with what amounts to a shrug. And yet, one could argue it’s the most personally reflective work of his career, one that acknowledges the obsessive fussiness and trifling airs, but ultimately concludes there is beauty in such accouterments. It's almost as if Anderson has heard his critics, and this is his response.
 
At a late point in the movie, one of our narrators – there are several narrators, organized like nesting dolls, because, well, why not – says of Gustave, “To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it. But, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” It’s hard not to apply those words to Anderson himself, considering how out of time and place his work seems.

Budapest features a number of Anderson’s repertory players, but the main roles are awarded to newcomers like Fiennes, Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, F. Murray Abraham, and Jude Law. Some of his regulars are cast to inject personality into smaller roles (Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Jeff Goldblum), but countless others (Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson) turn up in gratuitous cameos that seem intentionally designed to enhance the decorative excess on display.

The cast does a nice job, but, despite the big ensemble, this is mostly a two-man show between an older and younger man. In that way, it’s reminiscent of Anderson’s masterpiece Rushmore, but the dynamic is so different that it’s really its own thing entirely.
Anderson uses a lot of miniature models in the film.
As the grown up Zero, Abraham is a standout, and I’m happy to report Dafoe and Goldblum provide the biggest gut busters, just as they did in Life Aquatic (for some fun, here are short clips of Dafoe and Goldblum from that one). But the movie orbits around Fiennes, a versatile actor who proves more than worthy of Anderson’s greatest character since Royal Tenenbaum. Gustave is a prissy fop that is overwhelmingly concerned with appearances and formality, but he also possesses an unmistakable charm and honor. Fiennes absolutely owns the role, and fans of In Bruges won’t be surprised at just how funny he can make an expletive.
 
Per usual, Anderson incorporates immaculately worked-over production designs. For many of the external shots, he returns to the world of miniature models he explored so expertly in Fantastic Mr. Fox, creating some really breathtaking imagery that adds to the embellished nature of the piece (for more on this, check out this article).
 
Budapest moves at a breakneck pace, and it serves as one of Anderson's zanier entries. It’s not quite at the level of a Rushmore or a The Royal Tenenbaums, but it does represent the work of an auteur at the top of his game. At one point in the film, Gustave defends his proclivity for bedding old ladies by saying something I think applies well to Anderson’s recent output, most especially this film:  “When you’re younger it’s all fillet steak, but as you get older you have to move on to the cheaper cuts, which is fine with me because I like those — more flavorful, so they say.” A