10 March 2014

Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel


The Grand Budapest Hotel 
2014, 99mins, 15
Director: Wes Anderson
Writer (S): Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness, Stefan Zweig (inspired by)
Cast includes: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan 
UK Release Date: 7th March 2014 

2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom” gave me hope that Wes Anderson had finally shaped his unique corner of American cinema into something universally agreeable. The film preserved the stylised artifice and editorial beats that define the author’s brand, but also brought a tender and honest coming of age story to a rewarding lather; peppered with stellar performances from a mixture of newbies and veterans. “Moonrise Kingdom” felt like something other than the noodling of a man-child with a penchant for art deco furnishing, and as a result was handily the film-maker’s most satisfying work to date. It’s a shame that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” should throw those less predisposed to Anderson’s quirks back in the deep-end, the movie far more committed to gimmicky visual quirks and jarring oddball behaviour than enriching character study or storytelling panache. It’s utter anti-plotting from start to finish, coated in a varnish that underlines Anderson’s cine-literacy at the expense of engaging narrative.

Set in the 1930s (but framed by a contemporary F. Murray Abraham narration) “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a caper situated around the titular establishment. Seen through the eyes of lobby-boy Zero (Tony Revolori), Anderson’s picture focuses on randy chief concierge M.Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a consummate professional with a vested interest in the carnal fulfilment of the hotel’s geriatric guests. When one of his elderly squeezes (an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton) dies, Gustave is left with a priceless painting, much to the chagrin of her menacing relative Dimitri (Adrien Brody). Dimitri quickly conspires to frame Gustave for murder, leaving Zero with the unenviable task of helping him escape prison and prove his innocence.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a feat of production design and technical ambition. There’s always been a hypnotic and otherworldly register to Anderson’s symmetrically arranged sets, but eye-candy isn’t adequate compensation for the deficient human component. Every frame is so precisely choreographed and meticulously envisioned that they become overrun by a mechanical sensibility, draining out any genuine threat of believable spontaneity. Yes, Anderson goes down some pretty weird paths (I did strangely appreciate the movie’s proclivity for dark, knife-oriented comedy), but every offbeat selection feels incredibly calculated, as if the film-maker accords individual bursts of whimsy more gravitas than purposeful storytelling. “Moonrise Kingdom” had a lovely dynamic at its core; a well rendered and gently detailed romance accentuated by the film-maker’s strange touch, as opposed to being continually frozen by it. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” comes off as a piece designed around its potential for the surreal, instead of allowing expressionistic flourishes to compliment a more traditional artistic agenda.

Ralph Fiennes stretches his sillier faculties enjoyably, but there’s nothing to digest aside from well-timed line readings. The characters in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” are shallow even by Anderson’s standards, costumed beautifully, but without soul or nourishing emotional contexts. The screenplay attempts to feed viewers the odd splash of exploitatively placed backstory to create the illusion of depth, but only the least demanding of consumers will be fooled. People may as well be puppets to Anderson, albeit of the most pristinely crafted and ornately envisaged sort. Everybody looks phenomenal and suitably displaced from reality, but in the end it feels like cameos are more important to this auteur than strong characterization. We identify on an immediate basis with Harvey Keitel, Saoirse Ronan, Bill Murray and Edward Norton because of who they are, not who they’re portraying. There’s a fleeting joy to be had seeing these talents presented in superficially creative ways, but the long-term response is one of despondency. These are exemplary performers, made to look striking by Anderson and his unending toy box, but never actually asked to do much in the way of acting.

Structurally the picture is wrapped within layers of narrative murk, like some sort of demented matryoshka doll incarnate. Anderson has always been fond of experimenting with the distance between narrator and interiority, but with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” the model displayed is distractingly perplexing. The film-maker plays with aspect ratio and stop-motion, which certainly immerses certain scenes in a picturesque flurry of energy, but when push comes to shove it really doesn’t mean much. I like pretty images as much as the next guy, even when they don’t succinctly merge with sterling screenwriting, but the extent of Anderson’s indulgence is just too intense to ignore. The kinetic compositions stutter and subtract from what little humanity is evident onscreen, reducing everything to style over substance. It’s a despairing critical cliché to wield, but with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” also an impossible truth to ignore.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014


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