There are few filmmakers with as distinctive a voice as Wes Anderson. His films all share a unique vision of a quirky, pastel-coloured world.
The lead character of his eighth film, the ostentatiously entitled "The Grand Budapest Hotel," talks of being a "man out of time," and this easily could describe Anderson and his works. Like the pastries that play a critical role in the film, his works are confections -- elegantly constructed, beautiful to look at, and simply too sweet for some to stomach.
From "Rushmore" to "The Royal Tenenbaums," from "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" to 2012's "Moonrise Kingdom," Anderson's impeccable craft has garnered him legions of fans. While those not enchanted by Anderson's film often deride them as "twee" or redundant, fans simply adore travelling to the worlds that Anderson and his collaborators create, a kind of adult fairy tale where there's great music, snappy one-liners, and some of the more visually stunning images ever set to screen.
So What's "Grand Budapest" about?
In a somewhat rare turn for an Anderson script, this one actually has a plot! Essentially it's the tale of a hotel in the Republic of Zubrowka, a fictional central-European country that has mountain views, funicular transportation, and a candy-pink hotel that's propped up on one of the local peaks.
With a story that spans several decades, the bulk of the narrative takes place during the hotel's heyday, just as the tide of the Second World War is crashing on the borders of Zubrowka.
The story is one of art thievery, providing gigolo services to octogenarians, and the importance of good manners and good service as aspects of one's conduct.
This sounds ridiculous.
It is ridiculous, but in that inimitable Andersonian way.
Is this story based on anything?
The narrative is a kind of love-letter to Stefan Zweig, a Viennese author that Anderson unabashedly adores, and who informs the author character that Tom Wilkinson and Jude Law play in the film. While Zweig's novels bear little overt connection to Anderson's films, it's the kind of quirky connection to the milieu of Anderson's confections that fans of his have come to expect.
Bill Murray again, huh?
First of all, it's a fact: there's no such thing as too much Bill Murray. That said, Anderson has quickly developed a kind of theatrical ensemble, one that seems to grow with every project with new characters added on.
Owen Wilson goes back to the first film "Bottle Rocket," Murray and Jason Schwartzman have been in the club since "Rushmore," and relative newcomers like Harvey Keitel and Edward Norton also do their thing in this film. Yet for this project, it's first-timer Ralph Fiennes' immaculately upright shoulders on which the film rests. Fiennes is like a prissy feline in this film, and his brisk movements and eloquent profanity provides much delight.
Why does the screen keep changing?
In one of those fun little "quirks," Anderson uses different aspect ratios for the different time periods -- a square one (4:3) for the 1930s, a more widescreen aspect (1.85:1) for the 1960s, and an even wider one (2.35:1) for the contemporary setting. This kind of attention to detail is catnip for cinephiles, but it also does a nice job to delineate the various time periods, and gives Anderson unique opportunities for framing in different ways the different sections of the story.
What's with all the stop-motion stuff?
After his challenging (some would say indulgent) film "The Darjeerling Limited," Anderson directed an adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved tale "Fantastic Mr. Fox." With voicework by such titanic talents as George Clooney and Meryl Streep, this stop-motion animated film was seen by many (this writer included) as a fascinating departure from Anderson's normal work, after which he'd probably go back to the more esoteric art-cinema of "Darjeeling."
Amusingly, "Fox" has become a touchstone for Anderson's last two projects -- check out the animal masks of the children of "Moonrise Kingdom," or when they clamber atop the church, there are overt echoes to "Fox"-like style.
Yet with "Grand Budapest," Anderson takes it one step further. Fiennes' Gustave is already practically an animated character trapped in a live-action setting, yet the rest of the cast also comes across as broadly (and endearingly) as the best of any sardonic animated film. Take the baddie played by Willem Dafoe: his knuckles are decorated with skull-shaped brass punching implements, making for a dark spectre indeed, but when he's hunched over the handlebars of his motorcycle it's hard not to see him immediately as one of the characters in "Fox." The ski-and-sled chase in particular is an exercise in wonderful silliness, a clunky kind of animation that's both endearing and entirely in keeping with the film's aesthetic.
This all sounds terrible.
Let's not be coy. Some will detest this film, or simply dismiss it as indulgent rubbish. Many of these same people will detest sunsets, or musicals, or find bubblegum pop interminable. Yet for many more, another entry into the Andersonian canon is a cause for celebration. His films provide an intoxicating mix of sweet and sour, with a bit of ribald saltiness thrown in for good measure. "Grand Budapest" is another welcome addition to this quite extraordinary run of films, and while not shatteringly original, it still takes its own path while providing many echoes to the director's previous works.
"Grand Budapest Hotel," like any great place to stay, is best when one relaxes into its creature comforts. It's a beautiful work that's both irreverent and at times unabashedly serious, very much feeling (like many of Anderson's films) like some forgotten classic unearthed for modern audiences.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is now playing in theatres.