Friday, March 14, 2014
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dir. Wes Anderson
4 out of 5
There's an argument to be made for The Grand Budapest Hotel as one of the best historical dramas in recent years, despite taking place in a fictional country (the lowly central European republic of Zubrowka) and featuring events that exist only in the imagination of filmmaker Wes Anderson. Constructing a world that resembles the uncertain political miasma of interwar Europe, the auteur smartly realizes that the creation of history is not an aspiration but a buffeting force that pushes people to secure what they can for their own futures, and what is interpreted as academic fact by later generations was once the emotional stuff of individual lives.
Anderson establishes a deeply-felt chain of human connections in the first 10 minutes of The Grand Budapest Hotel, beginning with a teenager reading a book with the same title at the author's grave. He quickly flashes back to the writer (Tom Wilkinson) reminiscing how he became acquainted with the story of the Grand Budapest, a once-glittering mountain resort that had fallen into disrepair when he visited it as a younger man (Jude Law) and became acquainted with its kind but weary owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Sensing a simpatico spirit, Moustafa invites the writer to dinner and proceeds to explain how he acquired the hotel and why he cannot bring himself to shut it down, even as repairs mount and guests dwindle.
The bulk of his story - and the film inself - takes place in 1932, when war is brewing and the young Zero (Tony Revolori) is employed as the Grand Budapest's lobby boy under the tutelage of head concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Yet another Anderson character trying to impose stability on a world unmoored by messy things like emotions and politics, Gustave takes his mission of service seriously, even after he's falsely accused of poisoning a wealthy old widow (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton) and thrown into jail. The Grand Budapest Hotel is essentially Anderson's whodunit movie, dressed up with the director's trademark visual fastidiousness. There's a dramatic reading of a last will and testament, a butler (Mathieu Amalric) with a secret, and a priceless painting that's a winking parody of mystery MacGuffins.
The movie finds its rock in Fiennes, playing Gustave with the perfect blend of confidence, composure, and barely suppressed melancholy - Anderson's most complex and fascinating character since Steve Zizzou. He shamelessly panders to the rich biddies who visit the Grand Budapest in droves to experience his "exceptional service." He's also an effeminate dandy with a strong belief in chivalric codes of heroism, friendship, and justice. The movie's only real weakness is that it periodically leaves Gustave's quest to exonerate himself to focus on Zero and his understated romance with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a talented young pastry chef, which comes across as tepid compared to the mayhem surrounding the couple.
The Grand Budapest Hotel again finds Anderson re-arranging all of his favorite tropes into yet another affecting story about how people or events or eras are defined (or misinterpreted) through their presentation. By now I hope everyone realizes that Anderson is much more than a details-obsessed fussbucket, but it's always worth nothing where his worked-over set dressing conveys real meaning, whether it's the way the older Moustafa's insists on sleeping in the same staff quarters he inhabited as a young man, or Gustave's obsession with items - ivory-handled hairbrushes, fancy colognes, expensive pastries in decadent pink boxes - that support his cosmopolitan image. But by breaking the spell of his own lovingly-crafted faux-nostalgia with the bawdy and brutally funny interjections of real life, Anderson reminds us that even as we preserve these constructs as our official version of history, there's often a deeper, more emotional story waiting to be uncovered.