Saturday, March 8, 2014


Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a delightful farce, a wonderful romp and a screwball caper. It's fanciful and funny, but it's also perhaps Wes Anderson out-Wes Anderson-ing himself. I haven't seen everything out of the writer/director's canon, but I think I've seen enough, from his very best ("The Royal Tenenbaums," "Fantastic Mr. Fox," "Moonrise Kingdom") to his lesser efforts ("The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"). It's certainly safe to say since 2009's animated entry, he has solidified, even more than before, a stylistic signature. With "Grand Budapest," the film comes standard with all the tropes we recognize with characters and cameras only moving at right angles, framed in pretty little boxes, with swiveling, pivoting cameras and swooping zooms, tiny miniatures and a cast of familiar faces (Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman). The filmmaker is who he is, and with this latest outing his style has been refined to pinpoint precision.

Set in a fictional European town in between the world wars, the story is told through the visit of a young writer (Jude Law) to the now rather decrepit Grand Budapest, long past its glory days in the 1930s. He meets a man named Zero (F. Murray Abraham) who recalls his extraordinary tale of when he was a young lobby boy (played by newcomer Tony Revolori) under the wing of head concierge Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). Fiennes excels in the role with rapid-fire poetics and dialogue, an operatic man who acts as if all the wrongs in the world can be righted with proper manners. Etiquette, above all, defines his charmed era, which he refuses to believe is soon coming to an end, with darker times on the horizon.

When we switch from the older Zero recalling his tale to back in the day, the film switches from widescreen to a 4:3 aspect ratio, and cinematographer Robert Yeoman uses both to great effect; most recognizably the latter as every shot is squared off and perfectly symmetrical. And it's all set to a bouncy, delectable score from mainstay Alexandre Desplat. The winding tale springboards from the death of the 84-year-old Madame D (a hilariously elderly Tilda Swinton), one of the many female residents of the hotel Gustave had relations with. At the reading of her last will and testament by Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), it's discovered that the Madame left her most prized possession, a Renaissance painting called "Boy with Apple," to not her ruthless son Dmitri (Adrian Brody), but instead Gustave. This puts Dmitri in a fit of rage, along with his dastardly henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe), a man so cruel he'd even throw a cat out the window.

Gustave and Zero steal the painting, which launches an extravagant manhunt led by an Inspector played by Edward Norton, not dissimilar to the Scout Master he played in "Moonrise Kingdom." Zero at the same time is falling for his true love, the sweet bakery girl Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) whose Mendl pastries come into smart play. It all gets a bit nuts and slapstick, but the production design pops, and the characters lay into the humor and fluffiness of it all. The absurdity reaches its peak during a prisonbreak that looks straight out of an old cartoon, led by a bald, tattooed Harvey Keitel. While for a second you might think there's no real depth of feeling, the darkness lurking beneath the candy-colored confection, like a sweet pastry from Mendl's, rears its head.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is like a wind-up dollhouse with so many trinkets and moving parts, it's a marvelous contraption. But with spurts of coarse language, shocking violence and the impending gloom of war, there's an important line from older Zero recalling his hero, Gustave: "He was a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity."

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