Sunday, January 25, 2015

Honorable Lobbyists: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Reviewed

So, let's begin by saying I had no particular desire to see The Grand Budapest Hotel.  I have only seen two of writer/director Wes Anderson's movies to date (Bottle Rocket and The Fantastic Mr. Fox), and while I enjoyed them both, I guess I never saw what all the fuss was about.

I wasn't opposed to seeing it, you understand, I just didn't have a lot of desire to, having not even seen the trailer.  Fenya did, however, and having the weekend to ourselves and the need to start seeing nominated movies prior to Oscar night sealed the deal and we watched it yesterday afternoon.

And I am very glad we did.  I enjoyed it tremendously, and can recommend it wholeheartedly to most of the people I know.

Now, I have never been one in favour of the scoring of movies on some sort of numeric scale. Honestly, the idea of some artistic algorithm that can somehow compare The French Connection to both Inception and The Blues Brothers on any sort of mathematical basis is almost ludicrous on the face of it.  Even within a single genre, how do you contrast films like Zulu, Glory and Blackhawk Down?

Even Siskel & Ebert's binary recommendation of thumbs up or down is subject to qualification;one might recommend a movie provided you bear in mind the key performance is by an inexperienced actor who is sure to grow in both skill and stature, while the other might commend a martial arts film, but only to fans of that particular type of movie.

I start with a couple of assumptions, the first of which is that given the time, effort and capital involved in making one, no one sets out to make a bad film.  Yes, sometimes they seem to turn out that way, but I am not cynical enough to believe such failures intentional, excepting parody and irony, of course.

Secondly, I think every movie has its audience, and reviews should focus on helping the reader determine whether or not they have the potential to be that audience.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson's most popular movie to date, grossing $175 million prior to its release on video next week, and it is also 2014's most successful independent movie, so there is no question that there is a broad base of appeal.  Having said that, however, like a lot of Oscar contenders (or all movies, I suppose), this film is not for everyone.

Opening with a visit to the grave of an apparently beloved novelist, the visitor opens the eponymous book, which then flashes us back two decades, to the novelist himself (Tom Wilkinson), narrating his own prose.  He then flashes us back to a visit to the namesake hotel in the fictional country of Zubrowka during the 1960s.  During that visit, a chance encounter has him (now played by Jude Law) listening spellbound to the hotel's owner (F. Murray Abraham) recounting the adventures of the hotel's legendary concierge, Monsieur Gustave H, (Ralph Fiennes) in 1932.

As an unabashed fan of competence porn, watching M. Gustave discharge his duties and responsibilities with long tracts of whip-crack dialogue filled with meaningful details, often while keeping as brisk a physical pace around the magnificent old hotel, I was completely delighted.  Ralph Fiennes, so well known for his ominous presence in roles such as Voldemort, or the Nazi commandant in Schindler's List, is absolutely enchanting as the fastidious, perfumed, poetry-quoting and elderly female-squiring major domo.

When one of his octogenarian patrons suddenly dies, however, he is drawn into a mysterious intrigue involving the dowager countess, her estate's lawyer (Jeff Goldblum, in a rare role that never requires him to stammer), her nefarious son (Adrien Brody), her domestic staff and a priceless painting.

Through it all, M. Gustave is accompanied by his newest hire, Zero, the Lobby Boy.  Tony Revolori, in his first film role, portrays this protege as an honest and loyal page, as well as a committed confidant and friend.  And despite all this, still possesses the courage to caution his mentor against flirting with his own paramour, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan).

Despite taking place in a relatively short period of time, The Grand Budapest Hotel exposes us to hotel workings, high society, intrigue, art theft, war and peace, all done very briskly with a running time of only 100 minutes.

Wes Anderson effortlessly weaves humour, pathos, tension and absurdity in such a way that I sometimes had to remind myself I wasn't watching a cartoon.  Watching characters exit the foreground stage left, only to reappear a second later entering the background from the same edge, so we could watch them traverse the screen in silhouette brought artists like Tex Avery or even Chuck Jones to mind.  The colourful palettes he chooses to fill his screen with in every scene but one did little to change this opinion.

Also masterful is the manner in which he uses the aspect ratio of the film to signify which time period we happen to be in, starting with a full frame (2.35:1), and then letterboxing the author's recollection (1.85:1), and using an almost square frame (1.35:1) for the 1930s, which takes up most of the film.  It's a bold and clever choice; I think most viewers will find it helps in keeping track of where in time they are, even if many of them are not initially conscious of the effort.  Anderson and the studio actually sent around very specific instructions as to how the film is to be screened in service of this device:

It all helps to establish The Grand Budapest Hotel as the kind of movie they talk about when they say, 'they don't make 'em like that any more', when apparently they do.  So few directors have the courage or skill to play with the medium itself these days, that I am inclined to think of Wes Anderson as a slightly gentler and more whimsical Quentin Tarantino, believe it or not.

The question remains then: if I think the film is well written, well acted and well directed, why can't I just rate it a 8.648 or suchlike and have done with it?  Well, I again direct the reader to para. 4, above.

I think most people, on the whole, are likely to enjoy the film, as I certainly did.  You are more likely to enjoy it if:

  • You have a high tolerance for absurdity.
  • You don't mind a little darkness mixed in with your levity, in the form of a handful of murders, numerous fights, and a little bloodshed here and there.
  • Bright splashes of colour are not too distracting.
  • You don't insist on your narrative being delivered in a strictly linear fashion.
  • The idea of Voldemort growing hair and a nose and becoming absolutely charming is not too offputting.
  • The assurance of happy endings for all the sympathetic characters is not required.
  • You are not intimidated by lengthy patches of rapid-fire dialogue, occasionally containing foreign words and phrases:

Zero: Do you have an alibi?
M. Gustave: Of course, but she's married to the Duke of Westphalia. I can't allow her name to get mixed up in all this monkey business.
Zero: Monsieur Gustave, your life may be at stake.
M. Gustave: I know! The bitch legged it! She's already on board the Queen Nasstasja, halfway to Dutch Tanganyika.

There is a also a brief depiction of a sexual act, a few frank descriptions of same, and f-bombs galore (Tarantino again?), but by and large, the content is fairly tame.

Nothing insurmountable or even really challenging here, but rest assured, you will undoubtedly speak to people who didn't particularly enjoy this movie, and they may cite one or more of the above as the reason.

Suffice to say, I really enjoyed the Grand Budapest Hotel, as did Fenya, The pace, the period, the presentation; all combined to tell a delightful story of friendship, loyalty and love, much of it in the context of service to others.  I love a good turn of phrase, especially those that have the phrasing and cadence of earlier times, like the ones in True Grit, or The Sting, and this film resonates with them.  I have pre-ordered the BluRay, and following the Oscars, you are likely to find me catching up on Wes Anderson's other movies.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. I, too, found The Grand Budapest Hotel quite delightful for all the reasons stated. Absurd, clever fun.