Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic, Fantastic Mr. Fox) hones American whimsy, if you can call it that, to a signature level in this manic, R-rated, comedia de l’arte.
Recalling the Euro-phile efforts of Blake Edwards’ slightly ramshackle 60’s and 70’s movies, you will have to make up your own mind as to whether this Oscar-nominated, rather old fashioned farce, is a deft comedy of surrealism or a collapsed soufflé of over-ambition.
This cartoon caper concerns a run-down palace of faded splendours behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern European Zubrowka. Told second-hand as a flashback from the 1980’s by Tom Wilkinson’s (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) elderly author, we see his younger self, Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes, Anna Karenina) among the few remaining guests in the 1950’s, getting the first hand tale from the old Mr Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) in flash back to the 1930’s. Lost already? Don’t worry, the amusing chapter headings will take your mind off it.
So in 1929, young refugee Zero Moustafa arrives as trainee lobby boy, where the louche, camp, conceited concierge Mr. Gustave H (the intense Ralph Fiennes – Skyfall, Harry Potter) rules with a hand of iron clad in a velvet glove. Poet, philosopher and man-out-of-time, Gustave is also a gigolo to the elderly, wealthy female guests.
Which is how Zero becomes embroiled in a violent, profane caper full of murder, art theft, prison breaks, down-hill tobogganing and the philosophy of customer service in a changing world between the wars.
Amidst the multitude of light-touch performances, it’s a star turn by heavy-weight Ralph Fiennes as the self-invented concierge; playing very much against type, who knew he could do comedy?
Clearly the cast is having a ball with the material, Anderson having called in his Hollywood repertory chums for pantomime cameos. Adrian Brodie and Willem Dafoe do 1920’s gangsters, Edward Norton a Ruritanian police chief, Owen Wilson the stand-in concierge, Tilda Swinton (Narnia) the octogenarian dowager, Harvey Keitel an old lag in prison. Bill Murray pops up briefly as a fellow concierge, as does Jason Schwartzman; Mathieu Almaric (Quantum) is a secretive butler, Jeff Goldblum an honest lawyer. In this fairytale Euro-pudding of a setting, Anderson gives up and lets everybody use their own accents, from broad Yank, to English cut-glass, to Ronan’s natural Irish lilt.
The script by Hugo Guiness, based on material by European surrealist writer Stefan Zweig, is an uncomfortable mixture of quick-fire banter undercut by prodigious swearing, supposedly for comic effect. Even Fiennes fails to get away with it.
Once or twice, a touch of tragedy and existential angst intrude into the farce, then Anderson turns the page and off it romps again like a runaway train, rather than the fine Swiss watch some audiences have been tricked into believing.
As with all things Anderson, design is everything, so ‘above stairs’ we have monumental sets on a grand Eurpoean scale, in which tiny doll figures scuttle about as if in doll’s houses. Everything ‘below stairs’ is delapidated and peeling..
Outdoors consists of tiny figures in silhouette and/or long-shot in deliberately cheap (I hope) CGI landscapes, culminating in a Wacky Races mountain chase.
The whole thing sits uneasily between Tales of Hoffman and late 60’s comic capers such as Monte Carlo or Bust and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. Resembling a Penn and Teller Breaking the Magician’s Code routine, complete with trapdoors, the whole thing flaps and clatters like theatrical rigging on the verge of breakdown
Audaciously presenting itself as the antidote to the Hollywood production line, and wearing its’ Indie movie credentials as a badge of honour, Grand Budapest Hotel is, nonetheless, a huge quivering blancmange of a movie. Like the wierd confectionery from Mendel’s bakery, you have no idea what it’s meant to be, and the profusion of ingredients leaves you wondering what exactly went into it. Like the aftermath of a rich dessert, you may be reaching for the indigestion pills. RC
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Stefan Zweig, Hugo Guinnss, Wes Anderson
Runtime: 1 hr. 39 min.
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saiorse Ronan, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, Adrian Brodie, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Mathieu Almaric, Jeff Goldblum