Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I figured I better review this film now that it's been nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. It's actually been a few months since I've seen this film, and I always intended to finish my review for it by the year's end. However, life intervened and I never had time to get it written. As you'll see in the paragraphs to follow, I enjoyed this movie quite a bit... but I was floored when I saw all the recognition that was showered on Wes Anderson's latest picture. My overall opinion for the film is still generally positive, but consider this a somewhat skeptical reaction to the insane amount of praise The Grand Budapest Hotel is receiving, which will hopefully fall on open ears and minds.

The film is told in multiple flashbacks as an elderly hotel owner named Zero Moustafa shares the history of his tenure with the Grand Budapest to a young author who is spending the night. He tells of the eccentric but devoted hotel concierge, Gustave H., who was well known for the exquisite service he would provide to all guests, though particularly to elderly women. One such woman had died under mysterious circumstances, and her descendants are in uproar when a priceless painting has been left to Gustave instead of them. Things get a bit messy when a lawyer gets involved, noting the suspicious manner of his client's death and eliciting a homicidal reaction from one sinister family member. However, Gustave won't let his inheritance slip away, and he steals the painting after the controversial will is read. This puts a target on his head for not only the police as they try to apprehend the thief, but also the old woman's violently jealous family members.

I missed this film when it was released in theaters (as I think most people did, given its lackluster box-office receipts), but with favorable reviews and a general taste for Wes Anderson's aesthetic, I thought I would give it a try on Blu-ray. For the most part, this film is highly enjoyable to watch, save for a few uncomfortable innuendos between Gustave and the elderly women he serves. There are also a few jarring moments of violence that might shock some viewers, as it comes completely out of left field. While that can enhance the element of surprise for these moments, it can also color the rest of the film a bit darker than I think it should have gone.

This movie is flowing with energetic performances from everyone in this star-studded cast, but no one is as revelatory as Ralph Fiennes. Known by most for his villainous performances in the Harry Potter films and Schindler's List, Fiennes is not only whimsically polite as the hotel concierge, but he also brings an unexpected humor to the part that I've never seen from him before. He's easily one of the five best performances I've seen this year, and I'm sure in any other year he would have garnered at least a nomination from the Academy.

Along with the performances, some of the best elements of The Grand Budapest Hotel are the technical achievements, namely the cinematography. Wes Anderson has a very distinct style when it comes to his camera work (see my review of Moonrise Kingdom for more on that), and Budapest might be his best visual work yet. However, with such a recognizable fingerprint, it becomes difficult to distinguish one Wes Anderson film from another at times. Even the posters for this and Moonrise Kingdom have very similar layouts, and if you've seen that or any other of his films I doubt you'll find anything truly original here. The quirky sense of humor, the fast-paced editing and clever camera angles are staples in an Anderson movie, and though I found myself laughing a lot here, aesthetically it wound up being exactly what I expected it to be.

Probably the main reason I'm surprised by the overwhelming praise The Grand Budapest Hotel is receiving is that it really ends up being about nothing. I feel like the artsyness of the story structure was meant to bring a deeper meaning of some kind, but it ultimately gets away from Anderson by the time the film comes to a conclusion. Whatever point there was to telling Gustave's story becomes fuzzy once credits roll, but the most critical thing I can say about this film is that the message is either under-developed or just unmemorable. I think technically this is a beautiful film, and if you like other Wes Anderson movies then you'll know exactly what you're getting, but this is hardly Best Picture material in my mind. I can think of a handful of un-nominated films that are more deserving of the honor, but perhaps this is one of those instances where the Academy recognizes an artist for a body of work rather than the movie on its own (like Martin Scorsese with The Departed).

I actually enjoyed this film quite a bit, but for me it wasn't Wes Anderson's strongest work. This may be Ralph Fienne's strongest work, and were it not for him I don't know if I would have liked this movie nearly as much. The rest of the cast also put out impressive performances, but it was more enjoyable to see all the movie stars making cameos than it was to try to follow the story. Overall it's a pretty solid effort, and I give The Grand Budapest Hotel a slightly generous three stars.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is rated R for language, some sexual content, and violence

** What did you think of The Grand Budapest Hotel? Did you miss it entirely? Did you like it? Did you hate it? Let me know in the comments, and don't forget to like the Facebook page! **