Grand Budapest Hotel, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/13/14 15:16:32
(Worth A Look)
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.
Of course, if he is it might be difficult to tell such an activity from his normal sort of unapologetic artifice, which arguably becomes self-justifying in this case: Put the story Zero is telling underneath multiple layers of fictionalization and memory, and both the Hollywood cast and the trademark fanciful, brightly colored design and elaborate staging gain a certain justification. Anderson, as he tends to do, sometimes takes this too far - does the movie really need to be shot in at least three separate aspect ratios, with only a couple of minutes filling the entire screen (if that), and how carefully did he calculate the exact amount of cheer to suck out of things toward the end? - but sometimes going that far is the only way to discover how funny fisticuffs can become just by slowing the pace of a scene down, or letting details like the relative quality of a cupcake's icing add more to a scene than you might think.
Anderson is, after all, petty darn good at this, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is him in top form. There are a number of sequences in this movie that are just brilliantly staged bits of elaborate deadpan absurdity - the prison break is a favorite of mine, although there's something perfectly and hilariously unreal about a chase down a ski slope. Impressively, that breezy and whimsical air occasionally gives way to a legitimately sinister atmosphere (it's impressive how easily Brody and Dafoe transition between comic villains and the genuinely threatening variety), which feels legitimate even though the movie will return to slapstick soon enough. The film also makes occasional jumps into cheerily vulgar territory that one might not expect from such a colorful, quirky, and, yes, controlled movie.
And probably nobody handles that better than Ralph Fiennes who, apparently, can actually be genuinely funny when he puts his mind to it (okay, he's done it before, but it seems relatively rare). This is certainly not the most complex character he's ever played, but it's a genuinely delightful performance, smoother than silk to the point where it's easy to miss something hardscrabble or profane coming out of Gustave until a beat or two later, hamming it up at times without disturbing the pinpoint precision of the film. He's balanced by Tony Revolori, who gives Zero plain-spoken sincerity and an understated confidence that one doesn't necessarily see in Anderson heroes - as much as he appreciates this new father figure in his life, he's not desperate for one, and already has his gaze set forward, toward Agatha. There are also some highly capable scene-stealers in the movie - anything with Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, and/or Willem Dafoe is gold, and Owen Wilson makes me laugh just at the laid-back incongruity of his character. Given the quality of the ridiculously packed cast, there's not a bad performance to be found, although plenty of people not given the room to do as much as they are capable of.That's the way it is with many of Anderson's movies; the surface is so impressively rendered that the core, if there's one, can barely peek out. Here, a late attempt to add heft almost backfires, feeling like he has awkwardly grafted adult ambiguity onto a farce. Moments like that are notable for being the exception, though, with the vast majority of the movie very funny indeed, with a main pair who can give it a bit more spark than it might otherwise have.
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