Wes Anderson films are an acquired taste. I respected and appreciated his previous efforts, most notably The Royal Tenenbaums back in 2001 and the animated Fantastic Mr Fox in 2009, but I have not been able to enjoy them as much as some others, who think his flicks are the best thing since the invention of air conditioning. Anderson’s films are just so tightly-wound and choreographed — to the extent that they come across almost like animations or stage productions — that the surreal air about them often make it difficult for me to engage with the narrative for the entirety of the running time.
Anderson’s latest entry, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has been lauded as a masterpiece, and I went into it thinking that this might finally be Anderson film that I can truly enjoy. And while I did enjoy it a lot, I still don’t consider myself a convert. It’s a finely crafted motion picture full of imagination, confidence, and a ridiculous A-list cast that spews out witty lines at a frenetic pace, and yet it is so whimsical and farcical that its deeper undertones and poignancy tend to be overwhelmed, resulting in one of those fun but ultimately forgettable experiences.
The fictional eponymous hotel, located in the mountains of a fictional European Alpine state, is the setting of this wild madcap caper about the adventures of a concierge, Mr Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), and a lowly lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori, and later F Murray Abraham). Mr Gustave is a smooth, fast-talking sleazebag who makes a habit of courting wealthy, elderly women, and when one of them (Tilda Swinton) dies under mysterious circumstances, all fingers are suddenly pointed in his direction — and it is up to Zero to help prove his boss’s innocence.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is full of twists and turns, most of which are completely unexpected because it runs so fast and furiously that all your attention is spent simply trying to keep up. If you’ve seen any of Anderson’s past films you’ll have an idea of what you are in for, though this one, with cute miniatures and hand-made art, is arguably his most stylish and visually-impressive effort. It’s decidedly meta; there are delicate layers upon layers, stories within stories, the narrative moving from character to character and through different times and eras.
The cast is outrageous — apart from the aforementioned Fiennes, Abraham and Swinton, there’s Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Lea Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Tom Wilkinson. Thanks to Fiennes’ superb performance and comedic timing, however, it did not feel jarring to have so many superstars in the one film, often for just a scene or even a second or two. Who knew Voldemort was so funny?
And that’s the biggest strength of The Grand Bupadest Hotel – it’s probably Anderson’s funniest film ever. The wisecracks are razor sharp, and, unlike much of the humour we tend to get in comedies these days, actually witty. The use of well-timed profanity is spot on. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I giggled often and hard.
The first half is funnier than the second half, where my difficulties with the film start to seep through as the story begins to take a slightly more melancholic turn. As often can be the case with Anderson’s movies, the tone can come across as unmistakenly smug. You just get the feeling that it’s getting too smart and witty for its own good — to the point where you react to the jokes with “that’s funny”, but without actually laughing. It wasn’t so much of a problem in the first half of the film because everything was so fresh and frantic and fun, though later, when you can tell the film’s also trying to be poignant and send a deeper, more emotional message, it becomes much easier to see through the contrivances. And once you lose your focus it becomes very difficult to get back on track.
Consequently, the overall package is a mixed bag, albeit one that is weighed heavily towards the positive. I loved the look of the film and the brilliant cast. It was undoubtedly funny and clever; stylish and precision-crafted. And yet its irreverent, artificial feel made the film difficult to sustain an emotional connection for its 99-minute running time. I like to think of the experience as sampling a series of beautifully designed, tightly controlled set pieces, each of which stands up well on its own, though together the pieces don’t quite deliver something greater than the sum of its parts. Having said that, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an easy film to appreciate and enjoy, and so far it’s my favourite Wes Anderson film to date.
3.75 stars out of 5
PS: I have yet to see Moonrise Kingdom and I cannot recall much of Rushmore.