Stage/Screen

Published on March 29th, 2014 | by John Kephart

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The Grand Budapest Hotel: not so grand, but pretty good

Wes Anderson’s latest confection, The Grand Budapest Hotel, dazzles audiences with equal parts whimsy, high adventure, and travelogue.

The film is structured as a series of interlocking flashbacks, which begin after a brief glimpse of the present. In the first flashback, set in 1985, The Author (Tom Wilkinson) narrates the story of his extended stay at the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968.

In this lengthier, second flashback, the long-past-its-prime hotel is the setting of a chance encounter The Author (now played by Jude Law) has with the hotel’s reclusive millionaire owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). In telling his long-hidden tale of how he became the hotel’s owner and earned his fortune, we flashback to Moustafa’s youth, when he was a lobby boy under the tutelage of the hotel’s effete-yet-sophisticated concierge, M. Gustave.

The events during the first ten or fifteen minutes of the film aren’t nearly as difficult to follow as the above paragraphs imply. I promise.

 The bulk of the remaining film takes place in 1932. The titular hotel, situated in a fictional European country called the Republic of Zubrowka, is the pinnacle of elegance. At its center is M. Gustave, who sees to every little detail of the hotel, its guests, and its staff, including the young Moustafa (Tony Revolori), called Zero. Gustave is especially attuned to filling the needs of a certain kind of guest: wealthy, older, female. He shows them love and affection, and they return it, but Gustave isn’t a gigolo; he genuinely loves these women.

 One of the concierge’s favorites, the elderly Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, in very convincing old-age makeup; the role was originally intended for Angela Lansbury), departs the hotel after one such rendezvous, though not before sharing a foreboding she’s had. Zero soon brings Gustave the news that Madame D. has been found dead, and the two depart by train so he can pay his last respects. What follows is a will-reading, the theft of a valuable painting (courtesy of Gustave and Zero), some nasty business by a henchman in the employ of Madam D.’s son (Adrian Brody), a jail break, a shoot-out, and a bittersweet ending ― at which point the film reverses course back up the timeline, to 1968, 1985, and the present.

The film’s focus stays mostly on the relationship between Gustave and Zero, and Zero’s pastry-maker girlfriend, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), who Gustave wholeheartedly approves of ― so much so that Zero has to repeat the question “Is he flirting with you?” (Gustave, of course, flirts with everyone, going so far as to call men “darling,” including thuggish border guards.)

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Many of Anderson’s troupe return in Grand Budapest:  Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, and Owen Wilson all make cameo-sized appearances, while Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, and Harvey Keitel have larger, if relatively brief, parts to play.

 While for the most part Budapest delivers what fans of Anderson expect, there was one aspect I found disappointing: the humor. And if there’s one thing that should not let you down in a Wes Anderson film, that’s it. Every one of his films share a wry sensibility, as well as many laugh-out loud moments. That drollness is present, as are a few jokes that rate more than a small chuckle, but much of the humor, for me, fell flat. And as the film progresses, Anderson seems to rely more on running gags (like the above-mentioned “Is he flirting with you?” as well as “Take over for me” and “Are you Monsieur Gustave of the Grand Budapest Hotel?”) that, in my opinion, didn’t improve with seemingly-endless repetition.

 Another departure for a Wes Anderson film was a disturbing level of violence that, in my opinion, didn’t quite gel with the more lighthearted plot. I have to admit that I’m the kind of person who doesn’t find a character losing four fingers in a slammed door, or seeing a severed head in a basket, nearly as troubling as a cat being thrown out a window and looking down at its splattered remains below (what’s with recent indie films and their abuse of felines? First Inside Llewyn Davis, and now this. Maybe F. Murray Abraham is the connecting tissue, considering he’s in both?). Though all of Anderson’s films feature violence of one kind or another, this time it seemed a bit more difficult to forgive.

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Otherwise, Budapest has the look and feel of a Wes Anderson film. As such, everything is highly-stylized, from the sets to the costumes to the intertitles dividing the story into parts (for instance, “Part 4: The Society of the Crossed Keys,” is embroidered on a piece of cloth along with a couple of crossed keys), much the same way The Royal Tenenbaums was divided into chapters. And, like that film, you feel as if you’re watching a great literary work translated to the big screen ― though in this case it’s actually partially true, as this film was inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, whose urbanity is mirrored in Gustave.  

Ultimately, whether or not you enjoy this trip to Andersonville probably depends on how big of a fan you are of the director’s style. Though I came away vaguely dissatisfied, I know from past experience that that may not be my final opinion. I didn’t care much for Anderson’s Bottle Rocket or The Darjeeling Limited on first view either, but have grown to love them. Where this film fits in the pantheon of Wes Anderson films is yet to be determined.

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About the Author

John Kephart is a writer and filmmaker who resides in Tacoma.



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