Friday, March 28, 2014

On the Big Screen: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

Wes Anderson conspicuously ends his new film with a dedication to the author Stefan Zweig, leaving most in his audience to wonder who Zweig was. Did he write farce comedies? Comic strips? Did he perhaps draw those as well? Technically speaking, Zweig was a pulp author, though it must be noted that Blue Book was probably the most high-toned of pulps and Zweig's contributions were excerpts from already-published non-fiction books. But no -- although the bemused spectator might imagine Zweig kin to Rube Goldberg or Frederick Burr Opper, the kinship is probably all Anderson's. I won't question his sincerity in claiming Zweig, a star author of the period in which the film is set, as his primary inspiration, but everything else about the picture screams early 20th century comic strips and movie comedies. As an homage to these things, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an admirable labor of a love that may not dare speak its name, but Anderson's invocation of Zweig points to bigger ambitions, or at least so I assume, that the film doesn't really fulfill.

To wrap everything up neatly and quickly, the film aspires to pathos -- Zweig himself seems to have been a figure of pathos, at least at the self-willed end of his life -- but achieves it only intermittently. That's because, at 99 minutes and plenty of plot, the movie moves at a breakneck pace that leaves little time for the romantic mood Anderson presumably meant to create to sink in, or for us to appreciate what exactly is lost between the time of the story and the time of the framing devices that we should regret. The love story between Zero the lobby boy (Tony Revolori) -- in proper comic-strip manner this vaguely Keatonesque figure has "Lobby Boy" inscribed on his hat, in keeping with the movie's almost Tarantinian degree of labeling and chaptering  -- and Agatha the pastry chef (Saoirse Ronan) is mostly observed on the fly, and the main story of the picture isn't Zero's courting and winning of the pretty girl with the Gorbachevian birthmark -- a map of Mexico across her right cheek -- but the fight of his mentor, the Grand Budapest concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), to claim a painting left to him by one of his elderly lovers while clearing himself of her murder. It's one big chase pitting our heroes against cartoonishly hateful villains -- Adrien Brody's fascistic boor and Willem Dafoe as Brody's skull-knuckled goon -- and punctuated with slapstick of a violence more consistent with comic strips that silent movies. Anderson's miniaturization of modern action-movie moments to toylike effects, as in the big ski-slope chase scene, reinforces the overall comic-strip aesthetic with an audacity that's thrilling in its own way while suggesting that such moments are trivial compared to the scenes where the director really spends money.

Within those parameters, the cast is uniformly excellent and sensually speaking the film is superlative. Alexandre Desplat's score is the best work I've heard from a composer I consider overrated, while Robert Yeoman's cinematography is up to the high standard of Anderson pictures. I probably wouldn't feel disappointed about the film at all if Anderson himself didn't insist that there was something more to it that I didn't really see, not just with his dedication to Zweig but with the whole framing device establishing the story's basis in a novel whose author is revered as a national hero in his homeland. The film is nestled like a Russian doll in generations of layers: a young woman of today pays homage with a hotel key at a monument to the author, whom we see in 1985 dictating the novel, in which a fictional writer of 1968 (Jude Law) meets the older Zero (F. Murray Abraham), who tells him the story of the film, set in 1932. The end of Abraham's narrative brings the film's most successful moment of pathos, intended presumably to ripple across the generations until we return to the girl at the monument. As Zero explains what he's gained and lost since his story ended, the camera pulls back to reveal the mostly empty, moribund hotel that was so opulent and lively in his youth. Amid all the frantic virtuosity of Anderson's direction, that simple camera movement sums everything up quite nicely, but many viewers may lose the moment in the overall clamor of the comedy. In any event, we're supposed to believe that the author became an idol to his people primarily for writing this story. I don't buy it, and maybe Anderson doesn't mean us to buy it. But if he did, then while The Grand Budapest Hotel is highly entertaining it's also a failure on some level -- and I suppose there's something sad about that.

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