The Grand Budapest Hotel

By on April 12, 2014

There are certain directors that are commonly known as auteurs who inhabit a certain rarefied place in the world of film and are commonly held in higher regard than others, particularly by critics. If your name is often used as an adjective in describing a film, you’re in the club. Think Hitchcock, Kubrick, David Lynch, Tarantino, Spielberg, et al.

Basically, if you’re watching a film by any of these directors, you know it’s them within minutes. Wes Anderson is certainly one of those directors, and his style is very much uniquely his own. His movies play like adaptations of books that don’t actually exist, down to his frequent use of “chapter” motifs and narration, and a sweeping cast of characters and featured locales. Anderson’s films are very stylized and very specific, and if you don’t like that style, then you’re probably not going to like any of his films.

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Granted, it often takes a little time to establish that style. Even Hitchcock didn’t start out as the Hitchcock we all know and many revere. In Anderson’s case, that style began as a sort of hipster indie sensibility, with the cult flick “Bottle Rocket,” then gained critical acclaim and mass acceptance with the still charming “Rushmore.” Some prefer his early work, but to me, he didn’t really establish his particular style until his third film, “The Royal Tenebaums,” which would prove to be the blueprint his films would follow from then on.

Other similarly-styled films followed, including the somewhat underrated “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” the loopy “The Darjeeling Limited,” and the oddball left-turn into stop-motion animation “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” With the fantastic “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson finally seemed to find a way to make a film that was true to his style and yet still affecting to audiences in a way many of his previous efforts were not. When you have a certain type of style and it’s very affected and specific, it can often leave people cold. “Kingdom” managed to find a way to rectify Anderson’s style with substance and genuine heart in a way that evades much of his other work.

With “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Anderson backpedals ever so slightly, sacrificing some of that heart in the process, but delivering a winner, nonetheless.

“Hotel” functions a sort of a tribute to a very specific type of film, a combination of sweeping, decades-spanning epic and an old-school silent film, down to the boxy film ratio the film adopts for most of its running time (think old-school TV before it went letterbox format), and various techniques used back then, such as a circular deep focus, frequent wide-angle shots, intentionally and obviously sped-up effects and the extensive use of what are clearly model sets.

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If all of this sounds like full-on film geek stuff. Well, rest assured, it totally is.

As per usual with Anderson’s work, some people are going to hate it. But those who love it are really going to love it. I mean really love it- as in they will be watching and re-watching this thing over and over again for years to come and studying its near-pathological attention to detail and the way each frame looks like it could be a still life painting (and I do mean every frame). It’s just that meticulous. Needless to say, obsessive-compulsives are going to adore it. This one certainly did.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the history of a once-majestic hotel that has since fallen into semi-ruin. A “young writer” (no, really, that’s the character’s name), played by Jude Law, checks into said hotel and meets one Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who then proceeds to tell him the history of the hotel in detail, which we then see in flashback form. Mustafa, aka Zero (Tony Revolori), is a young “lobby boy,” working under the tutelage of the legendary concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a not-exactly on the up-and-up chap who he then gets into a series of misadventures with. That’s about it.

Of course, the plot’s almost beside the point. You don’t go to Anderson’s movies for compelling plots- you go for the journey, not the destination. And what a journey it is. There are scenes in this movie that are as riveting, entertaining and compelling as anything I’ve ever seen in any movie, ever.

But did I necessarily care about the characters, per se? Not particularly. Yes, I liked them. Yes, I was fascinated, sometimes charmed by them. But did I care? Not so much. It’s not that kind of movie. None of Anderson’s work is that, really, which is exactly why a lot of people hate it.

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And I get that, really I do. But I also get why people line up to work with the guy. Check out this line-up: Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, and the list goes on…

None of them have particularly big or even particularly memorable roles that will rank amongst their finest (though Dafoe perhaps comes closest to the mark, with his villainous turn). And yet, they make their mark, often in a mere scene or two.

That’s because Anderson understands that half the battle in a movie like this is casting and casting well. You might not remember the crazy names he gives said characters, but you know the actors, and that’s why it works.

The other half of the equation is staging. Anderson’s films don’t work the way most people’s do. They unspool, unfold, reveal themselves as the film goes on. Not in a last act final twist sort of way (i.e. M. Night Shyamalan), or in a final scene that pulls it all together at the end sort of way (i.e. Christopher Nolan). More like a way in which you realize the details have been there all along, you just needed to hear the rest of the story to fill in the blanks.

You get more information by simply looking at a given frame of an Anderson movie than you probably do reading the script. It’s all there, you simply have to get the whole storytelling thing out of the way first, then you can get to the real movie hiding (but not truly) underneath the surface of the plot at hand. That’s why his movies hold up so well to further re-watching. Once you get the gist of things, you can just go back and simply enjoy them, passively, without worrying so much about what’s going to happen next or how it all ends.

That, to me, is a wonderful quality for a movie to have. I mean, isn’t that what you want, a movie you can watch over and over again, learning something new every time? Granted, it helps if you care about the characters, but if Anderson’s characters aren’t exactly the warm and fuzzy type, they’re nothing if not intriguing, so there’s that.

In fact, if he can just crack the code of how to reconcile his particular style with characters that are approachable and inviting, he might just really have something we can all enjoy. Until then, there’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and it gets an A+ in my book.

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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