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Movie Review of the Week: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Movie Review of the Week: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
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Wes Anderson is not for everyone. His films unfold like a series of tableaux rather than fluid images. His characters are preciously archetypal. His stories lean toward the labyrinthine and baroque.  For some, he is the master of cool detachment and deep-seated, sardonic wit. For others he is remote and superficial. Wherever you stand, his new comic caper can be admired for the central performance at its heart; that of Ralph Fiennes as the fussy, pansexual concierge of the eponymous hotel.

Anderson employs not one, but three flashbacks and the use of voice-over narration to set his stage. From an imaginary country Zubrowka in present day Eastern Europe, we are taken back to a writer in 1985 (Tom Wilkenson). Then we jump back to 1968 when that writer (now played by Jude Law) paid a visit to the alpine hotel in its post-war decline. He meets the mysterious owner Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who tells the story of how he, as a poor immigrant lobby boy, came to own such a relic of former beauty and renown.

Such is Anderson’s way of introducing M. Gustave (Fiennes) with a device that keeps the audience somewhat at a distance from the characters. The story settles into 1932, when Fascism is on the rise and the Belle Epoque is a dwindling memory. Gustave runs the hotel with clockwork precision, catering to its customers (especially the wealthy females) with utmost chivalry and devotion. Fiennes, delivering his lines like a snappish Richard E. Grant, is both macho and effete, kind and self-serving, but always the smartest man in the room, with impeccable diction and eloquence. It is a joy to watch Fiennes in action in a film that can be described as a murder mystery, a prison escape thriller and a love story. And many other genre nods are in there too.

The love story involves Moustafa (Tony Revolori as a boy) with a beautiful pastry girl Agatha (Saoirse Ronan). The prison break, with remarkable debt to Jacques Becker’s “Le Trou”, showcases Harvey Keitel as an incarcerated thug. Elements of the Keystone Kops are apparent as a police captain (Ed Norton) pursues Gustave, accused of murder, with a Javert-like monomania. There is also Willem Dafoe as a ruthless killer, Jeff Goldblum as a tricky lawyer, Tilda Swinton (unrecognizable) as an aging dowager and of course Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson also show their faces.

The plot is convoluted and ridiculous, hinging on misplaced wills, stolen paintings and greedy family members. But the plot is not the point in a Wes Anderson film. Instead, we get to delight in some of today’s best actors playing along in the delightful realm of artifice that this director’s work exists in.  Sets are obviously false, stunts (a Bond-like sled/ski chase scene, a cable-car switcheroo) are clearly faked, and the characters revel in their one-note charm and inauthenticity.

Anderson doesn’t care about historical accuracy or cinematic realism. Instead, he delivers a lunatic tale inspired by films of the 1930s (one can’t help but think of Garbo and “Grand Hotel”) and the writings of Austrian author and pacifist Stefan Zweig. Like M. Gustave, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is full of panache and brio, bubbling with old-fashioned charm and nostalgia for a long-gone era.


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