Tuesday, March 25, 2014

L’Air de Panache: Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson tries his hand at something new: he jumps into comedy with both feet, and I think it suits him much better than the drab navel-gazing he’s known for. In his Critics at Large review of Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Shlomo Schwartzberg pointed out (quite rightly) how the rigidly-constructed artificiality of Wes Anderson’s films works against them – nothing feels true or honest or real, and in the case of Kingdom it doesn’t even really succeed at being original.  The result of his tonal shift in The Grand Budapest Hotel is a madcap, zany, hilarious film that plays on Anderson’s limited strengths. The plot is a madcap crime caper that bounces along at a brisk pace. The central story, about the titular hotel’s refined, roguish, sweet-scented concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) being framed for the murder of an elderly patron, is nestled Russian doll-style in a series of layered flashbacks that tell a broader and more touching story than the trailers might suggest, without ever becoming convoluted or confusing. Anderson draws generously from his now-impressive stable of regular collaborators; actors such as Willem Dafoe (as a comically lugubrious hitman) or F. Murray Abraham (as one of the story's multiple narrators) and they chew through their almost cameo-sized roles with abandon.

Anderson has justifiably become known for his visual aptitude. Symmetry, composition, and colour are still his touchstones and he's getting more vibrant and inventive with every outing. His detractors cry that his films are lacking in any meaning, with slick and shallow visuals to give the illusion of forethought; his apologists claim that his artistic vision is unparalleled. But Hotel is delectably detailed and much more visually engaging than most anything you'll find in theatres (especially the brainless, CGI-heavy action features which too often intimidate the audience into submission). Who introduces sequences with carefully-crafted title cards anymore, or uses miniatures to such obvious and quaint effect? These elements felt smug and inappropriate within the context of an ostensibly serious character study like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), but create an impish, endearing storybook feel in the proudly make-believe Hotel. None of the pastiche, affected "preciousness" of Anderson's previous efforts is evident here - instead, it's replaced with charm, humour, and genuine whimsy. Other than perhaps 2009’s animated Fantastic Mr. Fox (which is a family-oriented film), none of Anderson's movies can accurately be called comedy; this is his first real "Wes Anderson Movie™" that has a pervasive sense of fun. This is in large part due to a winning performance by Fiennes as the unctuous, foul-mouthed cad Gustave, and aided by some clever situational slapstick.

Anderson is somehow able to turn his normally uncomfortable material into comedy – situations which in his other films would be awkward and phony are grin-inducing here – and I think he deserves credit for this evolution, whether it’s by design or by accident. Anderson seems to have finally learned how to engage a broad audience with honesty and an agenda-free story. He still doesn’t rise to the level of filmmakers who tell sincere stories about real people, but I feel there should be room in the cinema for rich, eye-catching storybook entertainment like this one. Seeing Hotel is what taking a trip to the movies should be: fun, unpredictable, and memorable.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto. 

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