By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 15, 2014)
In the interest of upholding my credo to be forthright with my readers (all three of you), I will confess that, with the exception of his engaging 1996 directing debut, Bottle Rocket, and the fitfully amusing Rushmore, I have been somewhat immune to the charms of Wes Anderson. I have also developed a complex of sorts over my apparent inability to comprehend why the phrase “a Wes Anderson film” has become catnip to legions of hipster-garbed fanboys and swooning film critics (even the normally discerning Criterion Collection seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid).
Maybe there’s something wrong with me? Am I like the uptight brother-in-law in Field of Dreams who can’t see the baseball players? Am I wrong to feel that Plan 9 From Outer Space should be supplanted by The Aquatic Life with Steve Zissou as Worst Movie of All Time? To me, “a Wes Anderson film” is the cinematic equivalent to Wonder Bread…bland product, whimsically wrapped.
At the risk of making your head explode, I now have a second confession to make. I kind of enjoyed Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. A lot. I know, I know, I was just as shocked as you are right now. I can’t adequately explain what happened. The film is not dissimilar to his previous work; in that it is akin to a live action cartoon, drenched in whimsy, expressed in bold primary colors, populated by quirky characters (who would never exist outside of the strange Andersonian universe they live in) caught up in a quirky narrative with quirky twists and turns (I believe the operative word here, is “quirky”). So why did I like it? I cannot really say. My conundrum (if I may paraphrase one of my favorite lines from The Producers) would be this: “Where did he go so right?”
Perhaps it was the casting. Ralph Fiennes is a delight as the central character, Gustave H., a “legendary” concierge at the eponymous establishment, a luxurious mountain resort housed in the mythical eastern European Republic of Zubrowka. His story (the bulk of which takes place between the World Wars) is told in flashback, as recollected decades later to a young writer (Jude Law) by the hotel’s owner, the “mysterious” Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham).
Young Zero (Tony Revolori) was originally hired by Gustave as a lobby boy, but eventually becomes his protege and closest confidante. When rich eccentric Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) a longtime hotel patron who has enjoyed Gustave’s additional “special services” over the years, dies, she leaves her favorite concierge a priceless heirloom painting in her will, much to the chagrin of her greedy heirs, spurred by her unscrupulous son (Adrien Brody). Knowing that Madame D.’s family will never willingly surrender the treasure, Gustave and Zero abscond with it on a whim. Gustave is framed for murder and gets shipped off to prison, but not before striking a pact with the devoted Zero, making him his sole heir.
What ensues is part Arnold Fanck (DP Robert D. Yeoman’s beautiful cinematography cannily emulates the look of the German “mountain films” of the 1930s), part Ernst Lubitsch, and part Herge (in fact, Anderson’s film played closer to a Tintin adventure to me than Spielberg’s actual Adventures of Tintin did). The huge supporting cast is peppered by familiar faces (Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Wilkinson). Saoirse Ronan is a charmer as Zero’s love interest. I still can’t pinpoint where Anderson went so “right” (aside from instilling his story and characters with a hint of emotional resonance for once) but I’d dare say this is the most entertaining film I’ve seen so far this year (stranger things have happened). By the way…when did those ball players get here?