Thursday, March 27, 2014

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

An idiosyncratic, entertaining artist 
loses his subject matter in this outing

     Neil and I were looking forward to The Grand Budapest Hotel because of how much we enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom (2012).  His style has always been made up of equal parts young adult literary structure, brightly colored fairy-tale
illustration production design, an ensemble of name actors, and quirkiness.  The end credits say that he was inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig.  I haven’t read Zweig’s works from the early decades of the 20th century, though I’ve seen a couple of movies based on them.  Again, Anderson has a literary spine for the movie.

The Cotton Candy Production Design
     The production design looks like a box of Austrian chocolates come to life and the obvious miniatures lend a toy quality from the 1920s or 1930s to the visuals.  The TV and cinema previews have been enticing because they look like cotton candy and the tone has been fast and funny.  However, the movie is not just touching upon, but also an entrée to how the Nazis decimated the peoples of Eastern Europe and then how the Soviet controlled Communists wiped out the cultures and histories of those surviving peoples.  The movie feels as if it’s a valentine to an era (the Belle Époque of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) that, as one character admits, may have been over before the era of the movie’s beginning. 

     The subject of its beginning era is also an issue because there are framing stories within framing stories and jumps between 2013, the 1960s, the 1930s – 1940s, and reflections of fifty years earlier.  That happens in the first ten minutes of the movie.  I congratulate Anderson for taking on such an important historical subject and trying to present it lightly and with wit, rather than the stately, portentous, middle-brow fashion in which it would usually be presented (and generally wins awards).  However, the only time I think this worked was in Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997), though he incurred the wrath of the middlebrow for making light of the Holocaust.  Benigni’s movie worked at its core because of the relationships between father, wife, and son.

Tony Revolori and Ralph Fiennes
     Anderson cannot address his themes deeply in this movie because, except for Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave H and, to a lesser degree, Tony Revolori as Zero, there aren’t any developed characters.  We have nothing invested in them, except that we have histories with extraordinary actors such as Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, and Willem Dafoe, who have nothing to play.  They’re presented in curious make-up, wear funny costumes, and pop up in a couple of scenes and that’s it.  Neither Neil nor I can tell what it was about – by that, I mean the plot of the movie.  There’s a painting that a number of people run about for and end up in jail for a while and are chased by others, and then run into the Nazis, called ZZs in this instead of SS.  It felt like the Keystone Kops.  I found it endless because the plot through line was lost for me.

Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes
     Some thoughts about the performers:  Edward Norton has been criminally underused lately and he’s never less than excellent and is about the only supporting cameo player able to find anything to act here; why ruin Tilda Swinton’s looks when an older actress could have played the part; Saoirse Ronan needs a dialect coach to train her in dropping her Irish accent completely for American movies; can Owen Wilson play anything other than ‘Owen Wilson’; when did Harvey Keitel start looking like Alan Arkin’s twin; how does Willem Dafoe seem to never age – is it the Ernest Borgnine effect; now that the bloom is off Jude Law, will he find a decent part; F. Murray Abraham has been ignored for years by filmmakers, but I cannot think of this or Inside Llewyn Davis without his gravitas.

I was just hoping for a Hungarian pastry.

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