Friday, March 21, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Grandly chaotic

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: Rated R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.21.14

This one’s hard to categorize.

On the one hand, and perhaps most visibly, Wes Anderson’s newest opus is a madcap farce populated by eccentric and oddly polite characters who hearken back to those found within West London’s famed Ealing Studios comedies, during the late 1940s and early ’50s.

With the police hot on their heels, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, left) and his faithful
junior lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), frantically try to figure out where to hide a
priceless Renaissance painting that they have, ah, liberated.
On the other hand, it’s a droll send-up of Agatha Christie mysteries, with suspicious butlers, nosy maids and assorted other shady and avaricious characters, all of them anxious about the contents of a will that keeps throwing up codicils, riders, supplements, postscripts and assorted other appendices, possibly even superseded by the second copy of a second will.

On the third hand, it’s an affectionate ode to an era of more civilized behavior, when traveling strangers regaled each other with fascinating tall tales while enjoying a sumptuous meal; and when courting lovers exchanged passionate letters.

Then, too, there’s an affectionate nod to Inception, with its nested narratives.

And, last but certainly not least, however we choose to define this unapologetically zany melodrama, it most certainly could have come only from the eccentric imagination of director Wes Anderson ... and perhaps that’s the only explanation that matters.

Anderson’s films take place within a fanciful universe of his creation: one slightly off-center from our own, with occasionally familiar cultural landmarks that merely add to the gently bizarre atmosphere, laced with characters who deliver crucial soliloquies and peculiar non-sequitors with equal aplomb, and always with resolutely straight faces.

No character ever laughs at something said by another; at best, the speaker might get a raised eyebrow that Signifies A Great Deal.

In short, Anderson’s films are strange. Very strange, and definitely an acquired taste. I generally swing toward admiration, but not always; his previous outing, Moonrise Kingdom, is a thorough delight ... but I almost couldn’t make it through The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

This one falls somewhere in between, leaning more heavily toward the wacky delights of Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson has concocted the script with co-conspirator Hugo Guinness, claiming inspiration from pre-code 1930s Hollywood comedies and the stories and memoirs of Viennese author Stefan Zweig (!).

Avid film fans with a fondness for old-style filmmaking technique likely will have a ball. Mainstream viewers who casually wander into the theater will be convinced, after only 15 minutes, that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

And, to be fair, they won’t be wrong.

The bulk of the story takes place during the years prior to World War II, in a fictional spa town in the imaginary Eastern European alpine country of Zubrowka, within the sumptuous title establishment. Our hero is Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s fastidious concierge: a resourceful fellow who knows precisely how to cater to the eccentric whims of each and every guest.

And if the women express a desire for some afternoon delight ... or morning, or evening ... well, Gustave embraces that request with giddy abandon. Indeed, he’s beloved by all his female guests, even the elderly dowagers. Gustave doesn’t discriminate.

The key plot kicks off with the death of the immensely wealthy, 84-year-old dowager countess Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton, wholly unrecognizable beneath all that makeup). Her demise doesn’t take place in the hotel, but instead at her own palatial estate in Germany’s Schloss Lutz. Her passing assembles a massive platoon of children, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews and cousins once, twice and thrice-removed, all of them gathering beneath the imperious gaze of bad-seed son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), and all of them anxious about the will safeguarded by attorney Vilmos Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum).

The original will — all 25 pounds of it — appears likely to appease all interested parties.

Ah, but Kovacs has received, only that day, yet another a last-minute addendum that leaves the entire estate to...

...wait for it...

... Gustave.

Who, having arrived to pay his respects to the deceased, is understandably pleased. Dmitri ... not so much.

While the relatives bicker and squabble, Gustave takes his loyal and trusted companion — the hotel’s junior lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) — to an upstairs gallery, to view the late countess’ most prized possession: a priceless Renaissance painting titled “Boy with Apple.” (And before you ask, yes, it’s as fictitious as everything else in this film.)

Recognizing that the greedy relations below never will permit him to obtain this masterpiece — and with Zero’s encouragement — Gustave, ah, liberates the painting, and the two flee back to Zubrowka. Hot on their trail: Dmitri and his lethal, leather-coated, brass-knuckled henchman, Jopling (Willem Dafoe); and Albert Henckels (Edward Norton), captain of the Lutz military police, and his considerable army of soldiers.

Against such formidable odds, the outcome is inevitable. Gustave winds up in the worst possible place for a genteel individual of his refined sensibilities: the Check-point 19 Criminal Internment Camp, a medieval-era prison where longtime convict Ludwig (Harvey Keitel) calls the shots.

But what of the painting? And the hotel?

The ever-expanding roster of friends and foes also includes the late countess’ trusted butler, Serge X (Mathieu Amalric, of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and not-so-trusted maid, Clotilde (Léa Seydoux); Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), an apprentice at Mendl’s, Zubrowka’s best and most famous bakery, who falls in love with Zero, and he with her; and the assorted members of The Society of the Crossed Keys — among them M. Ivan (Bill Murray) and M. Martin (Bob Balaban) — a clandestine fraternal order of concierges who rally when one of their own is in trouble.

Not to mention the veteran author (Tom Wilkinson) who has written a novel based on these events, as he learned them decades earlier, when his younger self (Jude Law) heard them late one evening at the now-dilapidated Budapest Hotel, over a lengthy dinner with Zero’s older self (F. Murray Abraham).

And, yes, Anderson manages to work in repertory stalwarts Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Wally Wolodarsky, and I’ve probably missed a few others.

Most can’t be said to “act” in the usual sense, given Anderson’s fondness for bland stoicism; one wonders if the entire cast enjoyed cocktails laced with Prozac and Valium. A few exceptions stand out, of course, starting with Fiennes’ exceptionally exacting Gustave, given to rattling off commands the way Meg Ryan ordered apple pie à la mode in When Harry Met Sally.

The gag here, though, is that Gustave will unexpectedly punctuate an otherwise mild observation with an eyebrow-scorching display of profanity ... as if sometimes, every so often, the concierge can’t stand being gracious a second longer, and yields to a spontaneous rant. The disconnect is hilarious every time.

Revolori’s wide-eyed Zero is the hyperkinetic yin to Gustave’s yang: an impressionable young fellow who’s eager to please, eager to learn, eager to carry out his mentor’s every suggestion, and ... well, just eager. Revolori is a stitch, and a true find: a young actor with minimal big-screen experience who shines in this crucial role.

Dafoe radiates menace as the lethal Jopling; Goldblum is appropriately dignified as Kovacs, who values the letter of the law above all else.

Anderson’s films aren’t merely populated by such off-kilter caricatures; he also concocts an entire world for them to inhabit. The meticulously appointed hotel, its surrounding and even Zubrowka are imagined and realized to the tiniest detail. Production designer Adam Stockhausen definitely earned his salary, and the result is a droll blend of twee opulence and garish excess.

But Anderson and cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman even carry this faux-retro ambiance to subtler extremes. The film’s more modern framing sequence, with Jude Law and F. Murray Abraham, is shot at today’s familiar rectangular aspect ... but the core story reverts to the squarish screen shape that 1930s and ’40s audiences would have recognized.

The special effects are similarly old-school, with amazing miniatures brought to life by stop-motion animator Andy Biddle, who worked with Anderson on 2009’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The result hearkens back to the tabletop miniatures used by Alfred Hitchcock during his early years, notably the model train employed for a climactic chase in 1932’s Number Seventeen. Here, in Anderson’s universe, things build to a suspenseful ski, sled and slalom chase that echoes the frantic pacing of Wallace and Gromit’s frenzied pursuit of Feathers, in 1993’s The Wrong Trousers.

Composer Alexandre Desplat, another member of Anderson’s team, punctuates all this activity — and the quieter moments — with a score that’s both rousing and whimsical.

Anderson assembles all of these marvelous elements with the giddy delight of a child in a candy shop; the result may be bizarre, but it’s undeniably entertaining.

I’ll be checking into this hotel many, many more times.

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