Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Caution...spoilers ahead! Take a look at the poster for Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and it will tell you everything you need to know about the film. First, we are introduced to Tom Wilkinson wearing a nifty moustache who plays the "Author" of a book called (wait for it) The Grand Budapest Hotel. He starts to narrate the film. Then we flashback to him as a "Young Writer" played by Jude Law (also with a nifty moustache).

He is staying at the titular hotel where he has a brief conversation with Jason Schwartzman as "M. Jean" who is in the movie for all of maybe three minutes. He dons a moustache as well. Then Law meets F. Murray Abraham as "Mr. Moustafa", the reclusive owner of the hotel, who has let his bushy moustache grow into a bushy beard. Abraham then proceeds to recount the actual story of how he acquired the once grand palace to Law which adds up to the meat and potatoes of the film.

We see a younger version of the bushy bearded narrator (who has replaced Wilkinson in the voice over department) as a young man of seemingly little consequence called "Zero" (natch) played by newcomer (as the poster informs us) Tony Revolori. He draws his own moustache on in a mirror. We then meet the true star of the film, "M. Gustave" played by moustached dandy Ralph Fiennes.

Fiennes, for all intents and purposes, seems like a pompous rake or a cad. In actuality, he is an honorable man who genuinely adores an elderly woman (played by Tilda Swinton as "Madame D." under heavy and convincing makeup) whom he has been bedding for many years at the hotel that he is the proprietor of. After she dies, or is murdered (I don't think that part is ever really resolved) Fiennes gets willed the most valuable painting in her pricey yet tasteless art collection.

Rather than stay and fight with her lawyer (played by a moustachioed Jeff Goldblum as "Kovacs") and her greedy family (led by moustache-twirling, insult-hurling villain Adrien Brody as "Dimitri" and his clean-shaven henchman "Jopling" played by Willem Dafoe) Fiennes decides to simply take what is his right off the wall and head for home, but not before a moustache-donning Matthieu Amalric as the family butler "Serge" covertly slips a valuable piece of paper behind the canvas.

When it comes out that she was murdered, the family tries to pin it on Fiennes; retribution for claiming what was rightfully his no doubt. Fiennes gets tossed in prison where he writes long-winded poetry to his staff back at the hotel. While in jail, he meets a totally head-shaven Harvey Keitel who plays a convict named "Ludwig". They plan a prison breakout.

Meanwhile, a sympathetic Army officer named "Henckels" played by Edward Norton sporting a moustache, is dubious of the claims against Fiennes (Norton stayed at the hotel when he was a young boy and remembers how nice Fiennes was to him). Owen Wilson shows up as "M. Chuck" in a cameo almost as brief as Schwartzman's. Léa Seydoux and Saoirse Ronan play small roles too; Ronan has a birthmark on her face in lieu of a moustache. Seydoux simply sports a maid's hat.

Goldblum gets his fingers chopped off before being murdered by Dafoe (who also kills his cat as well as the family butler) and another character (who isn't even on the poster) who gets beheaded by the evil motorcycle-riding henchman. Sometime around this point, Bill Murray pops up wearing the biggest moustache of all as "M. Ivan" (get it: he's the biggest guest star?), a fellow concierge who comes to the aid of Fiennes on the lam; sort of a spiritual heir to Keitel's Mr. Wolfe character in Pulp Fiction I surmise.

Fisher Stevens plays another comrade in arms (though they were wise to keep him and his moustache off the poster) of the hospitality brotherhood. That piece of paper the butler hid behind the painting turns out to be the revised will of the old lady who has now left everything to Fiennes. In the end, everything gets wrapped up like a finely waxed and trimmed...well, you know. Even the young F. Murray Abraham (who gets the hotel after Fiennes expires) has begun to grow a real moustache.

Like most of Wes Anderson's films post the near-perfect Rushmore (1998), it's whimsical to a fault (not counting his delightful 2009 Fantastic Mr. Fox adaptation). His characters seem more like finely detailed figures from a curio cabinet being positioned 'round a toy theatre than actual flesh and blood people. While that's certainly neat to look at, it doesn't quite make for keen storytelling. Still, these are just fairy tales in a way. They're Archie Comics, as imagined by a Godard groupie. Fiennes certainly owns the film and should be remembered for it come awards season.

Still, I'm not going to laud Anderson's work here simply because he isn't as banal a filmmaker as Michael Bay or Seth MacFarlane, or because he clearly watches (and takes notes of) other films in the Criterion Collection (not just his own). But suppose for just a moment if every film Peter Bogdanovich made following The Last Picture Show (1971) was shot in black and white, with mostly the same cast and the same chiaroscuro production scheme...wouldn't somebody cry foul ball?

I think Anderson writes his films very similar to the way his poster was designed. It seems like he starts with a vague idea: a rich family of eccentrics; a Jacques Cousteau roman à clef; a nouvelle vague inspired love story of two runaways; and now this: a hotel staff of misfits set during two fictionalized World Wars. What we don't get is much beyond a premise. The film is being heralded in some quarters for its seemingly clever amalgamation of Eastern European 20th Century historical circumstances. Ya know, those bad guys in Spaceballs dressed just like Nazis too.

While definitely a step up on the evolutionary ladder from the earnest but narratively sloppy Moonrise Kingdom (2012), it's the moustaches that are most important to Mr. Anderson in Budapest. After all, the moustache makes the man.

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