Wes Anderson’s latest film, Grand Budapest Hotel, is a movie about a stupidly-dressed young woman who looks at a bust on a pedestal, and this makes her hear someone (the “Author” on the bust) narrating a story in a way that people only do for a television broadcast, and that is itself the story of that writer meeting someone who recites their life’s story to the author. Basically: what the f—k?
It is from this ludicrous and labyrinthine beginning that one of 2014’s best comedies takes off. The story of the girl looking at the monument feels blank, like the pure-yet-empty framing device that it is, the story of the author talking about what he heard feels twee and... “doofy,” while the story of the author hearing the life story told to him seems intimate and intense. And the life story told by that person? That one feels exhilarating and insane, and I’m sure it’s all on purpose.
As a writer and director, Anderson focuses on people who live in a world that is so idiosyncratic and eccentric that anything can happen – probably with some sort of 70’s quirk in the background, like tacky furniture or wallpaper. If Wes Anderson wrote a Twilight Zone episode, the moon and sun would go on some kind of journey to... I dunno, find their non-adoptive father, start an affair with each other, realize that they’re related to one another by blood even though they were both adopted, and then destroy the Earth in their attempt to consummate the affair. Also, either the sun or the moon would wear a monocle, a cummerbund, a cravat, or some sort of ridiculous headgear best suited to Midwestern children in the early-middle of the 20th Century.
In the end, Anderson’s fetish sure as hell isn’t my fetish, but he handles it nicely and makes it more appealing than I thought possible. As the opening minutes of the movie played, I found myself getting instantly annoyed by the sheer Wes Anderson-ness of it all, like someone who’s put on way too much cologne or perfume. But it wasn’t long before I looked past the overly-mannered dialogue and carefully-prepared sets, instead losing myself in the physical and verbal comedy on display; the barrage of jokes was so steady and so effective that I was very much impressed and won over. While not perfect, I couldn’t ask for more from GBH, as a comedy or a part of Anderson’s C.V.
So the narrative at issue here is that some Author once met the reclusive owner of a storied hotel, while the author and owner were both staying in that hotel. Being a fan of the author, the owner decides to reveal the incredible and ridiculous tale of how he came to work at - and eventually own - the building that they are both in. The story is full of treachery, loyalty, wit, and snark. My god, so much snark.
Over the course of a star-studded 100 minutes, we see the struggles of a lothario uber-gentleman who frequently breaks from the façade of his own character, the perseverance of a desperate strange teen who immeasurably elevates his lowly bellhop position, and some wealthy thugs who will stop at nothing to get everything. It’s a classic underdog story that includes heist and mystery aspects, all filtered through a director whose cinematic sensibilities are either semi-old or very skewed toward foreign cinema, or both.
It wasn’t the fact that WA always has this insanely Wilt Stillman-esque dialogue, kind of like formal Austen mashed up with Shakespeare and then translated to modern speech. It wasn’t the fact that every room in every scene is so excessively-decorated that it looks like the bits of “flair” in the movie Office Space. What got my hackles to rise was seeing Tom Wilkinson narrating a story behind a desk and having his grandchild interrupt the scene and the grandchild is wearing this ridiculous Nehru jacket that would only be worn by a James Bond villain or a James Bond villain’s #1 henchman.
It looked so stupid and contrived and no kid would ever ask for/want such a coat unless they wore it as a costume for playtime, and Wes is just asking all of us to accept the avalanche of his pungent bs like a dentist that goes from saying “okay, we’ll start your cleaning” to “I’ll begin your root canal now” in the same minute. I loved Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, and I still felt that he really should've eased the audience into things here; instead, it crashes onto you like the inexorable flooding of the Mississippi, and you're either swept along or you drown.
The quality of the prose (yeah, "prose") is probably GBH’s biggest strength, but the novel nature of the protagonist is the real winner. Ralph Fiennes excels at comedy in this pic, and there's a lot of joy wrung from the contrast between his role’s incredibly formal and mannered nature and the way that he often just breaks down and says "oh f—k it" every now and then. It should get old or seem like a cheap reused trick, but the blessing of this story and this cast is that it never does. I’ve seen Fiennes in many movies, and never knew he could be funny like this...
It's also interesting that the movie is harder to judge because it simply whips by so fast. While there are certain slower sequences and some long scenes, we're talking about a movie that's constantly bringing a new character into the frame, or weaving some new thread onto the already considerable pile of plots going on here. The same structure that I described at the beginning - that we're watching a story about a story about the telling of a story - is reflected in the numerous plots and subplots that hit the viewer in the face as if they were tied to the windshield of a car going 40 MPH.
And the elements that the movie adds, like a cook stirring in oregano or basil, are always in some way fantastical. When they're rooms, they're intricately- or magnificently-appointed. When they're plots, they're both simple and complicated. When they're characters, they have the most eye-catching wardrobe sensibilities, for better and for worse. And the people playing those roles often have just as strong an impact, because you know them all already and their inclusion jars the viewer. Owen Wilson and Fisher Stevens and Jason Schwartzman and Bob Balaban show up for like 5 seconds apiece, as if that weren’t totally distracting, and there are many other familiar faces that only show up for 10 seconds, or just one full minute.
I wonder if perhaps all these bright, drab, or brightly-drab additions may daze the audience, making them like a cat watching a whole bag of marbles spill off of a table and onto a tile floor.
But if that’s the case, and this movie is just a trifle that feels deep because of a bunch of bs, then at least it’s a weighty-feeling bs trifle that feels lovingly hand-crafted. I'll have to write an extra post about this pic just to cover some of its connections to other movies - because there are so many of them, and so much metatextual material is going on here. Two of the title cards - which look like some 6 year-old made them - lead into two of the most beautiful shots I have ever seen in my whole life. And I had to put a hand over my mouth during the early scenes where Fiennes stops to obsess over his lover’s nails, and when he discusses skin creams with her corpse; I was laughing too hard and it was very late at night.
Much like an avalanche, genuinely humorous things pile onto Anderson’s stylish excess, one wherein he can just effortlessly create random lines of poetry that sound like they were by Shelley, Owen Wilson, or Kipling, or Wallace Stevens. I was in hysterics at the multiple-shot montage of “Old Zero” in his hotel lobby chair. Or the way that one army’s insignia looked like that of the SS, but also reminded me of ZZ Top. Another time, I saw a shot in an underground tunnel, and simply marveled as the camera pans up to a prison cell where the visual aspects are perfectly synchronized – right down to the bare light bulb in the cell above being mirrored by the flashlight one tunnel-digger holds in his mouth.
It could be that the best adjective to describe Wes Anderson movies is “uncanny.” Or “semi-alien.” It should be one of those two. But, for all the silly-ness of the story, Anderson manages to invest you in all the characters, lend some real weight to this twisty narrative, and give the result a certain heft and punch which it either (a) should not deserve or (b) should be quite hard to achieve, given the frivolous atmosphere. It’s a movie that uses so much irreverence that it achieves a kind of Zen state of high-minded, educated glibness – and, much a with an ex of mine, that glib vibe works for it, even though movies this cute and clever can often only succeed at annoying the viewer or revealing themselves to be totally hollow/false.
But, really, it was impossible for me to walk away from this movie without my heart feeling lighter. I laughed very hard, and quite often, no matter how initially resistant I was to this director’s hyper-style. I enjoyed every member of this impossibly-deep cast: Keitel, Goldblum, Dafoe, Norton, His Royal Murray-ness... And the overall piece has a certain charm that is very hard to deny; I think the writing is probably superb and the key to its success, perhaps in spite of the excess in the camera direction and costuming and set dressing. Much as with Fiennes’ character, a film like this could easily make enemies, and instead it makes friends – I’m willing to celebrate that fact, along with a huge swath of movie-goers and critics. For effort, if nothing else, I can see Wes Anderson securing an Oscar or two for what he achieved with this picture, and I wouldn't feel like the praise was misplaced at all, as this is a genuinely ambitious story that is well-told.