Monday, May 12, 2014

Somewhere Alongside the Moonrise: The Grand Budapest Hotel

I still think Moonrise Kingdom should have been nominated for Best Picture.

Wes Anderson's 2012 nostalgic comedy was one of many casualties that Oscar season, which also saw Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck (whose Argo took Best Picture) miss out on Best Director nominations. That year was... kind of a mess. It's almost as if people are ignoring little gems like this while overindulging on and celebrating David O. Russell and his admittedly good - but by no means groundbreaking or original - fare. Not that Anderson, the Texan director whose movies seem to run on whimsy and charm, is lacking in public attention. Though he's had a few bombs, Anderson has reached that point in his career where not only does the mere mention of his name elicit squeals of glee from fanboys and fangirls, but his films have also proven good, quirky and unique enough to draw in more mainstream audiences. And Moonrise Kingdom is one of his most inclusive, with all the nuttiness of Rushmore but more approachable at the same time.
Ralph Fiennes: one less great actor who hasn't worked with Anderson.
So can The Grand Budapest Hotel capitalize on that and become Wes Anderson's greatest work yet? Well, yes and no. Budapest is arguably one of Anderson's most artistic efforts, as his distinct style is all over the German locations and sets in which the film was shot. Whether it's opulently-colored models, creative camera techniques or unique character models, Anderson is at his glee-inducing best. His story of a legendary hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) falsely accused of murder and on the run from the law with his loyal lobby boy Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori) would make for a great thriller, if the screenplay (also written by Anderson) wasn't content to throw every humorous anecdote and amusing situation along the way to lighten the mood. The fact that Fiennes can talk about sleeping with older women in the same nonchalant tone in which he tells of the violent passing of a fellow prison escapee proves that he belongs in this director's pantheon of recurring performers, many of whom make their presences known.
I even liked Jude Law in this! Truly this Anderson is sacred!
And it's a great cast that the director has assembled here. Though there are a few returning actors that could have done more (no more than a small cameo for Bill Murray?), The Grand Budapest Hotel is surprisingly built upon its new talent, with the Anderson regulars filling out the smaller support roles. Fortunately, that new talent is headlined by Fiennes, who is simply put on of the best actors working today. Revolori also impresses, and the two make for an excellent pair, as the younger actor's innocent and eminently loyal sidekick plays beautifully against Fiennes' haughty, confident and charismatic leading man. And the cast is littered with excellence, Saoirse Ronan as Zero's dutiful but independent fiance to Tilda Swinton as a wealthy hotel patron, to Adrien Brody as her inheritance-seeking son to Willem DaFoe as his thinly-veiled violent sociopath of a lackey. Returning actors Edward Norton and Jeff Goldblum also find their marks as a police inspector and a by-the-book lawyer, respectively.
No, really, there's a funny story in here.
Budapest also carries an extra dose of the zaniness that makes Wes Anderson more than just a standard filmmaker, from his use of four distinct narrators (F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, and yes, I'm including the girl with the book at the beginning) to the Mexico-shaped birthmark on one character's face to having a man named "Monsieur Chuck" (Owen Wilson) to the beautiful cakes designed so that the prison would not want to disturb them looking for concealed escape tools. The atmosphere that the director creates never feels stale, and while there are times that a scene feels a tad overlong, it's a rare occurrence, and usually is made up for by the kind of irreverent humor and witty dialogue that feels reminiscent of the golden age of spoken comedy.
That's a lot of flattened cakes.
Unfortunately, The Grand Budapest Hotel is SO MUCH like a Wes Anderson comedy that.... it never really takes that next step you might have been expecting after the magic that was Moonrise Kingdom. Much like how Django Unchained was Tarantino's sideways step from Inglorious Basterds, Budapest just doesn't feel that different from Moonrise, not in locale or story (which are obviously differing) but in tone and pacing. The humor is the same, and the character archetypes just FEEL as though they've got Anderson's hands all over them. Keep in mind, that's not a bad thing. I mentioned before how the story would make for a great thriller, and another director would have done just that. By subverting that story and combining it with his style of moviemaking, however, Anderson makes something undeniably, indelibly his. And like the excellent Django, that identifiabe voice is what makes The Grand Budapest Hotel the wonderful experience that it is.
Nope, nothing suspicious going on here!
And while that means that The Grand Budapest Hotel ultimately appeals a little more to diehard Anderson fans than the average moviegoing audience, it's still one of the best movies released so far in 2014. You never know where the story will go next, and it makes for an excellent quirky, lo-fi option if you're already tired out from the big-budget tentpoles films that are starting to make their way into theaters. If you haven't already gone out of your way to see this, now is the best time to make it happen. Just don't expect anything truly groundbreaking - by Anderson's standards, anyway - and you'll enjoy your time at the movies very, very much.

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