Sunday, January 25, 2015

Service with a Smile

Film: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I realize that not everyone likes Wes Anderson. I don’t think he’s an acquired taste. I think he’s either a director that you like or that you don’t. I tend to like him, although I find that a little Wes Anderson goes a long way. It had been awhile since I watched a Wes Anderson film, so when I saw that The Grand Budapest Hotel was available from NetFlix, I put it at the top of the queue. Even if I hadn’t heard almost entirely good things about it, it was a film I was looking forward to seeing.

In many ways, it’s the least Wes Anderson film I’ve seen him do. Oh, the people involved still have that unique Wes Anderson-style OCD and a series of oddities and quirks, but there’s considerably less of that here than in most of his films. I’ll go so far as to say that of the Anderson films I’ve seen (not all but most), this is the one most likely to be enjoyed by people who don’t typically like Wes Anderson.

It’s also worth saying that having a reputation as a director like Wes Anderson comes with specific perks. This is a cast that is loaded from top to bottom, often with well-known actors having tiny parts and just a couple of lines. Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and a few others are in the film for probably a day’s worth of shooting. Aside from the main character in the bulk of the film, pretty much everyone in every major role is recognizable as well. That’s got to be a valuable asset to have when you’re directing a project.

The Grand Budapest hotel is presented as a flashback within a flashback. A young woman is reading a book by a now-dead author about his conversation he had with a man named Zero Moustafa. And we jump inside the book, where the author (Jude Law) meets Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) at the fading eponymous hotel in the fictional European country of Zubrowka. One night over dinner, Moustafa tells the author the story of the hotel and how he became involved in it, and thus we flashback again to the hotel at the time of its grandeur and especially to the time of its original concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).

Here we meet the young Zero (Tony Revolori), recently hired as the new hotel lobby boy, indicated by his hat, which reads “Lobby Boy.” Gustave, who romances older female patrons and provides excellent service to all guests, runs a tight ship and decides that Zero will become his protégé. One elderly guest, Madame Celine Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton) is particularly fond of Gustave, so it comes as a shock to everyone when she dies suddenly. Gustave is compelled to go to her wake, where he learns that she has willed him the invaluable painting Boy with Apple, much to the consternation of her relatives, particularly her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody).

Gustave and Zero steal the painting (since it now belongs to Gustave anyway). Madame Desgoffe und Taxis’s servant Serge (Mathieu Amalric) slips something behind the frame. This all leads to a chase involving the executor of the will (Jeff Goldblum), Dmitri’s evil henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe), a police inspector who remembers Gustave from his childhood (Edward Norton), and a series of murders, chases, and pauses for Gustave to wax poetic and spray himself with cologne. It also involves Gustave being sent to prison where he teams up with a man named Ludwig (Harvey Keitel) to escape. There’s also a romantic subplot as Zero becomes enamored of Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), the apprentice to a local baker.

In effect, in addition to being a wildly entertaining story, The Grand Budapest Hotel plays out as something akin to a neo-noir. It has most of the components, but all of them are slightly skewed, and all of the skewing is done to make the film far more entertaining and funny.

There probably are some people who didn’t enjoy this film, but I have a hard time picturing those people. I’m not precisely sure why the film works as well as it does. Much of the joy of this comes from the performance of Ralph Fiennes. I haven’t seen any of the 2014 nominated Best Actor performances at this point, but I can only think that it’s the Academy’s general prejudice against comedy that prevented him from earning a nomination for this. Fiennes is funny throughout and never breaks character. It’s as good a performance as I’ve seen from Fiennes, and that says quite a bit. Much of the film rests on the shoulders of Tony Revolori, who is up to the task of sharing the screen with a horde of better-known actors.

I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. Usually when I watch one of Anderson’s films I’m sated for a few months and have no desire to watch one of his films again. In this case, I’d happily sit down and watch this again right now. That more than anything speaks to the quality of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Why to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson and cast in top form.
Why not to watch: If you don’t like Wes Anderson, you may not be willing to risk it.


  1. Your entire second paragraph could just as easily apply to Anderson's last film Moonrise Kingdom. In fact, about the most common description I read of it was "a Wes Anderson film for people who don't like Wes Anderson films." I'm guessing you haven't seen it yet, but you will at some point since it got a screenplay nomination. It made my Top 10 of the year list and I'd place it just slightly above The Grand Budapest Hotel as my favorite Anderson film.

    Like you, I enjoyed this quite a bit. It's a strong contender to make my Top 10 for this year.

    You just have to go with it, though. For instance, I got a laugh about there being a random phone booth in the middle of nowhere when he needed to contact the society of concierges for help, but I'm sure there were people watching that thinking, "That's stupid. No one would put a phone booth there. And where are the phone lines?"

    1. I haven't pulled the trigger on Moonrise Kingdom yet. This might be what Anderson needs--he can keep the quirkiness and the weirdness, but he needs to get someone other than hipsters to like his films. The guy has talent and tells a great story, but there are times when he gets in the way of his own narrative. He really didn't here.

      I love the phone booth. Actually, I love that entire sequence. My wife's favorite part (in fact, we went back and watched it again a second time) was when the cat went out the window.

  2. I've been a fan of Wes Anderson since I saw The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou when it came out on DVD, and it remains my favorite Anderson film.

    I liked The Grand Budapest Hotel a lot, and it was the first time I've seen one of his films on a big screen. But I'm frankly a bit mystified by the film's popularity. It's a great film but I don't think it's nearly as good as Zissou or The Royal Tannenbaums. It's tied with Moonrise Kingdom in my book, as a second-tier Wes Anderson film.

    Still, I had no trouble watching it a second time when my brother rented it. I walked in a few minutes after it started and sat down for a minute without any intention of watching the whole thing again. But I got sucked into the story and watched the whole thing a second time. It is fun to watch, that's for sure.

    My punk nephew liked it! (He's 11 and his tastes run to super-hero sitcoms on Nickelodeon.) He watched the whole thing and the only thing he didn't like was that the miniatures looked fake. (You should have seen the look on his face when my brother tried to explain that they were supposed to look like that. It did not compute.)

    I still don't think it's successful as Zissou. But Zissou - with its Bowie songs in Portuguese, its fake stop-motion sea life, Bill Murray as ZIssou, Willem Dafoe as Klaus, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson, Bud Cort - was just irresistible to me. I've lost track of how many times I've seen it.

    1. The Life Aquatic is one of the few Wes Anderson films I haven't gotten around to. Given this ringing endorsement, I should probably get there sooner rather than later.

      I'd definitely watch this one again. I'm tempted to put my kids in front of it and see what they think of it--they're 16 and 11, so I'm guessing they're old enough.

      I'm not sure where I'd rank it in the Anderson pantheon. It needs at least another watch from me before I'm prepared to see how it ranks compared with The Royal Tenenbaums.

    2. My punk nephew wasn't bored out of his skull by Budapest, so I'd consider that a ringing endorsement for children aged 11 and older if they are of normal intelligence or above.

    3. I think my kids might enjoy it if only to see Voldemort in a comedy role.

  3. I loved this movie, but for the complete opposite reason as you stated. I actually feel this film was so overtly Wes Anderson that it came off like a self-parody of his own style. I don't like Anderson at all. I kinda liked Moonrise Kingdom, but I really, really dug this one. And, like you, I would definitely sit down to watch this one again. And I can't say that about any other Anderson film I've seen.

    1. That's pretty much how I feel about The Royal Tenenbaums. Typically, if I watch one of Anderson's films, I don't want to see it again for a long time, but I could watch that one over and over. I suspect I'll have the same relationship with this one.

    2. I guess I need to see that one, because I hear that same opinion frequently.