THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
by Chris Corbellini
*** (out of four)
I’m of the opinion that there are compelling stories out there seated silently in hotel lobbies and bar rooms across the U.S., and well beyond our borders. It’s not just the business travel that pushes me to write this. In my 20s I worked in hotels in a variety of roles, and witnessed what takes place when men and women are forced out of their comfort zones but very much free. Once as a lifeguard on a Friday night I watched a 50-ish man dressed in a tuxedo and armed with a martini slowly but confidently step into the pool up to his neck, raising the glass high. It can be absurd, it can be abrasive, it can be whackadoodle, and as such a hotel is a fitting setting for Wes Anderson, Hollywood’s Master Jedi of whimsy.
Anderson has now directed eight full-length motion pictures over his 20-year career, and here at lucky eight with “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” he found the right star for all that eccentricity. Ralph Fiennes projects an air of aristocracy in whatever role he plays, and though his concierge character in a film about a majestic hotel in 1930s Europe is a dandy, he can butch up when necessary and, in the character’s words, not “act like a candy-ass.” So yes, absolutely, “Budapest” is right in line with the rest of Anderson’s latest works — sets and artwork that bring to mind the Rose Reading Room in the N.Y. Public Library and a cover of a Beatles album, with plenty of quirky dialogue — but Fiennes is a standout until the final, fateful moments on a train trip through unstable countryside.
The story shifts quickly from present day to 1985 to 1968 to 1932, where it stays put. The storyteller in 1985 is played by Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton), and at that point in the narrative he is a writer of world renown. He quickly explains to the audience the benefits of being a famous writer: instead of making up tales from scratch, he’s approached by others who tell him classics of their own. In 1968 Wilkinson’s character is portrayed by Jude Law (I definitely see the resemblance), and while convalescing at the Grand Budapest, a fellow guest recognizes him and over dinner unburdens, gift-wrapping him a story that would define his career.
So the movie clock flips back to 1932, and a war looms on the outskirts of Anderson’s make-believe European Republic of Zubrowka. A lobby boy (newcomer Tony Revolori, who keeps up) is being broken in by Fiennes’ character, M. Gustave, who is known for delivering a certain kind of room service to his older clientele. One of those ladies, an ultra-wealthy 80-something, dies under mysterious circumstances, setting in motion Gustave’s imprisonment and the theft of a painting. Murder, laughter and droll line readings ensue. The lobby boy also falls in love with local baker girl, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan, destined for stardom with an Irish brogue) (Ed Note: She was captivating in Atonement). Oh, Adrien Brody looks like a vampire. And Willem Dafoe has the underbite of a bulldog. Yep, all very Wes Anderson-y. I won’t reveal anything more.
At different points Anderson’s camera deserves billing alongside the movie stars. Example: A prison guard cuts up foodstuffs one by one on a conveyer belt, looking for contraband, when finally a tastefully wrapped pastry rolls his way. The camera looks down at the treat, regards it, then looks up at the guard as if to say “C’mon, that is a thing of beauty, leave it be.” Later, during a daring re-entry into the hotel by the two chief characters, the camera is kneeling with them, and stealing glances, left and right, at some former co-workers, the movements suggesting “I know. I know. It’s crazy. We had to come back. I’ll explain later.” Every cinematographer from Sherman Oaks to Long Beach will tell you he or she makes the lens a presence (and in many cases, an unfeeling one), but in those moments the camera chief in charge here, Robert Yeoman, nailed the whimsicality Anderson is forever trying to express. Yeoman shines elsewhere, too. A museum hunt between two very well-known actors (the “armor room” scene in particular) was brilliantly lit and lensed, and the Winter Olympics chase and its conclusion was fun to watch, using stop-motion animation that brings to mind an Indiana Jones set piece.
Dr. Jones and Sir Steven Spielberg fought Nazis in three of those four films, and not long ago, Tarantino took on Zee Germans himself, grinding Hitler himself into hamburger helper with gunfire. Anderson had a chance to take those villains for a whirl in “Budapest, he just chose not to. When the fictional enemy forces finally take over the fictional country, he drapes a fictional flag with a “ZZ” all over the hotel lobby. It is implied of course, especially with the death squad threatening a party of three near the finish, when Gustave stares them down eyeball to eyeball one more time (Fiennes’ flinty, finest moment). But no, this is Anderson’s world in every corner of the frame, and real-life menace has no place in it.
Get used to it. While we are at the “you either get him or you don’t” part of his career, Anderson will continue to get work. The box office returns are respectable considering his budgets, and getting better. “Moonrise Kingdom” made over $45 million at the box office — not including DVD and VOD sales – many times more than the cost to put together. “Budapest” is currently over $40 million and still going. Anderson can and will shoot on the cheap (the stop-motion work mentioned earlier, for example), and by all accounts he’s obsessive with details. A perfectionist would suggest the artist being problematic for others. But any editor in a bay or line producer on set will tell you a detail-oriented director is cost-effective, and produces work quickly and with purpose.
He also draws out sublime performances from the big hitters, like Bruce Willis in “Kingdom,” Gene Hackman in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and Bill Murray on several occasions. In the DVD commentary of “The Life Aquatic,” Anderson admitted Murray was in a foul mood for the key scene of the entire film, the reveal of the jaguar shark. The director still managed to get one of the finest line readings of the funnyman’s career.
In other words, a director with vision isn’t going to make you scramble -– asking for, say, 50 boxes of cobras one day, then 50 cases of sunflowers the next for the reshoot. American Express used Anderson for this commercial and that’s not an accident. He’s in control. The dozens of rifles resting on lean-tos during the key reading of a last will and testament in the first act of “Budapest?” Minor set design, but also not an accident. Someone who works for the studio that released the movie told me Anderson personally wrote the stories that adorn the front page of the paper featured in this film, one involving the onset of war, and the other about the death of the woman which drives the plot of the picture. Newspaper stories that are shown in quick cutaways for only 60 frames or so, or about two seconds of a 100-minute feature.
It’s not quite Oscar material, but this is a story rich in detail, and one dipped in loneliness. The writer works up the courage to ask his subject if he gave up riches for some property that holds sentimental value. The subject‘s response I won’t serve up, but for those who like Anderson, it should be no surprise. He has been laying out his summation all along, movie by movie. In the final frames of “Kingdom” the bespectacled lead paints while his girl poses, yet instead of a portrait, the artwork is revealed to be the lagoon and rocky shores where the two lost souls blossomed into a young couple. I remember the murmurs and hushes in the audience when it happened – this director was on to something, more than all those lyrical transitions and extreme close-ups from his repertoire could express. Take away the quirk and sinister intentions and wedding-cake colors and art, and this is what Anderson’s expressing once again in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” For those lucky enough to have such grand experiences, this is where their art comes from, the longing to be in the same spot of carpet where bliss was found, and lost. It can happen in a lobby, while the rest of us sit silently and stare ahead.