A couple years ago, I reviewed the first Hunger Games movie. I have no idea why I did this. Even after reading the book, I had no interest in going to see it. I suppose it was one of those huge cultural moments that I felt obligated to have some opinion on as a film critic, even though my opinion would mean absolutely squat since everyone had already made up their mind whether or not to see it. All this to say that I will not be reviewing Divergent. Despite the involvement of Shailene Woodley and Kate Winslet, everything else I've read about this movie had me left me completely uninterested. I don't want to waste my time on yet another post-Twilight YA film franchise that's going to make millions no matter what I say.
No, I'd much rather review a film like The Grand Budapest Hotel, which finally made its way to Portland this weekend.
Describing the story is easier said than done, since there are so many complicated plot threads going in separate directions at top speed. Hell, the movie is told to us by way of a book, read to us by the author, who heard the story from another guy, who heard the story from our protagonist. This is how the film leapfrogs across multiple generations to send us back to 1932, when the narrative takes place.
Our protagonist is Zero Moustafa, a novice lobby boy at the eponymous hotel, played as an old man by F. Murray Abraham and as a young man by newcomer Tony Revolori. However, the story is really about Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the legendary concierge who serves as Zero's mentor. Gustave is noteworthy for his love of poetry, his fastidious and proud attitude toward his work, and the rich old female guests who come to see him on a regular basis.
Yes, Gustave is notorious for sleeping with the countless senile millionairesses who come through the hotel. One of them is played under heavy makeup by Tilda Swinton, who passes away and bequeathes to Gustave a painting worth millions. But the old lady's son (played by Adrian Brody, complete with a twirl-ready mustache) wants his mother's entire estate, so he frames Gustave for the old lady's murder. And Gustave -- who was with a politician's wife at the time -- is left without an alibi. A jailbreak, a transcontinental journey, a massive conspiracy, several murders, and a war ensue.
One of the reasons why I so enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom is because at its heart and core, it was a simple and emotionally powerful tale of young love. Likewise, The Fantastic Mr. Fox was centered around a family of animals struggling to survive. This movie, however, is so sprawling -- with a massively-scaled conspiracy plot involving multiple storylines moving in concert -- that I couldn't find any such emotional center. The relationship between Zero and Gustave is certainly the main focus, and the comic timing between them is insanely good, but it doesn't come with a thematic hook that's anywhere near as interesting or as heartfelt. Zero also has a love interest (Agatha, played by Saoirse Ronan), but she gets precious little screen time because of how painful it is for Zero to talk about her (it's Zero who's narrating the story, remember). The film makes sure to bring up nostalgia and former glory as prominent themes, but no creative point on the subject is ever made overt because it keeps getting swept away by all the other madness onscreen. The point being that the thematic content is certainly there, but it never coalesces into anything as coherent or as resonant as I've seen in Anderson's other works.
The film's treatment of its cast doesn't exactly help, either. All throughout the film, I was going "Hey, it's Lea Seydoux!" "Wow, there's Harvey Keitel!" "Look, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson finally showed up!" There are dozens of recognizable faces in this movie, they all drop in out of nowhere, and many of them only get a noteworthy cameo. Throw in the heightened nature of the story and the characters, and it gets very distracting very quickly.
Which brings me to where this film truly succeeds: Tone. This is a Wes Anderson film, so you already know that the film is going to have a blatantly artificial aesthetic with gorgeous colors, staggering production value, and painstakingly symmetrical shots. Watching a Wes Anderson film is like walking through a series of dioramas, or flipping through the pages of a pop-up book. There's never any pretense of suspending disbelief, yet it's all so beautiful and carefully crafted that we're willing to go along with the illusion. I'd love to see what Anderson's style would look like if he ever shoots it in 3D someday.
Perhaps more importantly, Wes Anderson the writer/director has a top-notch sense of comedic timing. The witty dialogue quips and the hilarious sight gags would be more than enough to make the film worth watching by themselves. The humor is also essential in selling the plot, providing so much sugar to help the convoluted plot lines go down. Most of all, the humor blends perfectly with the bright visuals, creating a sense of whimsy to establish the kind of "modern fairy tale" vibe that Anderson does so well. Anderson even goes so far as to replace the growing Nazi threat with something that's a touch less sinister; of course any story taking place in 1930s Europe would have to address the Third Reich, but the image of swastikas wouldn't exactly mesh with the vibe Anderson was going for.
- Instead, we have these banners.
The point is that the film has a strong sense of innocence, which contrasts in an intriguing manner with all the murder and mayhem going on. The effect is very much like those old WWII Bugs Bunny cartoons, especially during the jailbreak scene. Granted, it doesn't work quite as well here as it did in Moonrise Kingdom (which was definitely a more youth-oriented tale), but still.
The other big factor is in the characters. Even the most minor character in this film is played with tremendous zeal, which guarantees that even the slightest cameo role is memorable and there will always be someone entertaining to watch on the screen. This is especially true of the villains; Adrian Brody and Willem Dafoe are so very much fun to hate. Even Tom Wilkinson -- who has maybe a minute of screen time in total -- gets a few jokes to make the appearance worth his time.
However, this doesn't mean that some actors weren't underutilized. In particular, Saoirse Ronan does such a delightful job with such an interesting character that I'm sorry we couldn't see more of her. By the way, she plays a young baker with a facial birthmark in the perfect shape of Mexico, because that's how quirky and heightened this movie is. I'm also a little disappointed that Wes Anderson cast Jude Law in such an inconsequential role, but at least Law had the voice for it.
And what of our lead characters? Well, it bears mentioning that despite his blustery nature and rampant promiscuity, Gustave is a very likeable character. It helps that Gustave is quite self-aware about many of his flaws, which makes it fun when he justifies them or makes fun of them. And in those moments when the character isn't self-aware, the film takes some wind out of his sails to comedic effect. Perhaps most importantly, for all of Gustave's personal flaws, we see that he cares very deeply for his job and his friends. However vain and pompous he is, Gustave never puts himself before those he cares about.
Furthermore, though Gustave slept with a ton of rich old ladies, there's never a sense that he's a gold-digger. On the contrary, there's a sense that he deeply, genuinely cares for every guest who enjoys his company. And why wouldn't he? The women he courts are all vain, superficial, haughty relics of a time long past. As such, I'm sure Gustave saw them as kindred spirits.
As for Zero, he certainly makes for a compelling protagonist. Though it helps that he grew up to be F. Murray Abraham, Revolori does a fine job of playing the straight man against Gustave's antics. It's easy to admire Zero's loyalty and work ethic, and it certainly helps that he's deceptively capable of handling his own. In short, the film gave us two characters worth rooting for. It feels like there's something at stake here, which is desperately needed in such a heightened and oddball film like this one.
If it sounds like I'm being overly harsh on The Grand Budapest Hotel, that's only because I know Wes Anderson can do so much better. It isn't nearly as good as Moonrise Kingdom, but then, neither are most of the films I've reviewed. Taken on its own merit, the film is still very funny, slickly produced, and superbly written. It also features delightful performances from Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, leading a cast of supremely talented actors all tearing up the scenery like it's going out of style.
I went in expecting to be blown away by a masterpiece, only to come out merely entertained. And that's no bad thing.