Sweet Surprises at The Grand Budapest Hotel

It is not often I am self-aware enough in a movie that I can feel myself beaming, but it was a feeling I grew quite comfortable with as I watched “The Grand Budapest Hotel” yesterday.  It is not often I can say a movie just plug delighted me, but this one did.  With every unstacking of its Russian doll-like introduction, which unfolds from present day to the late 1960s to its core story, set in the early 1930s, my grin grew larger.  When the movie ended, I grew a little sad, but only because it was over and who knows when Wes Anderson will have a new cinematic treat for me, as beautifully composed and delectable as a Mendel’s cake.

Before I go on, perhaps it is best to backtrack a little.  If you’re wondering who Wes Anderson is, he is a film school nerd icon.  A writer/director, or perhaps we can even drop the word auteur here in spite of the risk of sounding pretentious, he is best known for his unique visual style, which you can see on display here in the Budapest trailer:

For my friends who know my film taste, it always surprises them that I count myself among the hipster filmies who idolize Anderson because I am far from a formalist when it comes to my film taste, meaning that I tend to be more drawn to subtler artistic direction, camera angles, and other technical elements and tend to privilege narrative and characters.

If you can’t tell from the clips, Anderson’s movies are highly stylized.  Every detail of every set and every costume is meticulously planned ahead of time and you could truly spend hours pouring through every freeze frame admiring the attention to the most minute of minutae.

For me though, the beauty of the Anderson mis-en-scene is that it helps to create an entire world populated with the quirkiest of characters, taking part in a narrative that has me completely rapt.  This might explain why I find Anderson so hit or miss sometimes.  While I positively adore “Bottle Rocket”, “Rushmore”, and my favorite, “The Royal Tenenbaums”, others like “The Life Aquatic leave me wanting for more.

That is the rub with Anderson.  If you don’t buy into the characters and the world doesn’t pull you in with a compelling story, the unusual look may keep you entertained for the length of the film, but you will feel distant and removed from the action at hand.

In "Grand Budapest Hotel”, there are actually three distinct looks at play.  There is the present day look, which we don’t get much but a fleeting glimpse of in the opening scenes of the film.  Then there is the 1968 look, where the hotel is presented with the same starkness as “The Shining” with the standard Wes Anderson touches, but as if they’d been unattended to for 20 years.  During this “My Dinner with Andre-esque” sequence with Jude Law and F Murray Abraham, it perfectly invokes the films of that era, but Anderson isn’t done there.

The 1932 portion of the film is a mix between a Buster Keaton silent film like “The General” and the early screwball comedies of Cary Grant.  I’m hard-pressed to believe Ralph Fiennes’ playboy protagonist M. Gustave is not some sort of tribute to the debonair Grant, while relative newcomer Tony Revolori as Gustave’s Lobby Boy-in-training Zero steals some scenes himself with his expressive face and penciled on moustache that seems to pay homage to Chaplin or another silent film star.  There are certainly some scenes like the mountaintop chase featuring Willem Defoe or the prison escape sequence that feel like Marx Brothers comedy set pieces.

If you are a fan of 1930s cinema, you will appreciate these nice touches, but you will appreciate the anachronistic moments of humor even more.  This movie is definitely Anderson’s funniest work since Rushmore and the funniest moments tend to come from the abrupt changes in tone from a poetic 1930s romance to an expletive-ridden tirade (done expertly by Fiennes and Adrian Brody).  There were a number of highly quotable laugh out loud moments in this flick for me, which was something I was certainly not expecting going into it.

Unexpected is probably the best single word I can use to describe this movie.  There is the familiarity in style and tone that comes with every Anderson movie, but most of this film caught me by surprise. Thanks to comedic moments and plot twists, I gasped more than once as our heroes evaded danger, cracked wise, and even fell in love (side note: does anyone do simple, earnest love stories as well as Anderson these days?)

It dawns on me I have written so much about this movie without really saying much regarding what it is about.  It is a caper film at its core, with dashes of other genres thrown in.  In many ways it is also a buddy comedy, as the bond between Gustave and Zero defines the film and is the emotional center of the story. It is a well-crafted relationship too, both fatherly and brotherly at the same time, sincere without being schmaltzy, and an interesting case of opposites attract.  If you’re asking me more deeply what the films themes and messages are, I can only guess after one viewing, which I am hoping is the first of many.

As I mentioned earlier, what Anderson depicts in this movie is not the actual 1930s, but the cinematic version of the 30s, as the section in 1968 is a very cinematic version of what 1968 looked like in celluloid.  It doesn’t even have real Nazis or take place in a real country.  It is a romanticized version of what this part of the world should have been like during this time of turmoil, an ode to the escapism of Ernst Lubitsch and Chaplin and Preston Sturges.  Anderson drew some criticism from folks frustrated to not see him actually deal with Nazis, only address them in this roundabout way, but to me, that was the point.  Sturges made light of the Nazis to hilarious and subversively wonderful effect in “To Be or Not to Be”.  One does not need to be “Schindler’s List” in order to make a point about that era in history.

In fact, it seems like Anderson is doing a lot of very intentional manipulation of time to make a point about Gustave and Zero that our film’s narrator (Jude Law) states rather plainly at the end of the film.  They were not people of their time.  But that can be said of many of the famous names I have mentioned here.  There is something classic yet modern about Sturges, Chaplin, and Lubitsch, much like our two heroes who try to live the life of gentlemen of a time long since past, but at times seem to forward thinking for the era they are in.  Like the titular hotel, it is grand, opulent and old-fashioned, while in its peak, it was the definition of the modern place to be.

I am a classic cinephile, so it probably is no surprise that my initial reading of this movie has me theorizing about actual eras versus their cinematic representations.  It also doesn’t surprise me that Anderson has delivered another movie so rife with opportunity to delve into and try to pull out some sort of meaning that may not be right there on the surface.  It is something I haven’t wanted to do for a movie in a long time and, as I said, it was a lovely, unexpected surprise.


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