Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is Anderson's Most Beautiful and Audacious Film to Date

Left to right: Tony Revolori and Ralph Fiennes
Few films have been as much buzzed about in 2014 more than director Wes Andersons' The Grand Budapest Hotel. From its box office records to critical acclaim, the director's vision is one of the most distinct, whimsical, and original films with a distinct color pallet and a strange narrative structure. While all of it is excessive, this is all part of a grander vision that poses the question of how far cinema can go and then shattering those expectations. It is a film that triumphs because of how realized everything is. This is the closest to an epic that Anderson has ever made and with this departure, he has made one of his most enjoyably accessible films to date.

Starting the film's trajectory on a bizarre note, the story is told not through a single person narrative, but through a girl reading a book in a cemetery that flashes back to the book's author that flashes back to the author at a younger age interviewing Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) about his childhood at the titular hotel. It then flashes back once more to a time when he (Tony Revolori) started off as a lobby boy and befriended the owner Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), who is eccentric and very familiar with all of the female guests. Despite this structure, its main focus is on the two latter story lines that reveal events during a war that cause Gustave to flee with young Zero. Along with plots involving stolen art and a jailbreak, the film has a commodity of homages to earlier cinema set inside a bright, vivid landscape that set to the gleeful, waltz-like score by Alexandre Desplat, manages to find the whimsy in the morose.

The most impressive aspect of The Grand Budapest Hotel is the set design. Using bright colors, the fairy tale aspect of the film works because of the narrative technique. Everything feels eerily like miniature houses and with equally elegiac costumes, the film is a visual marvel that takes the typical visual design of an Anderson film and throws in every impulse, including miniatures and literal poetic licensing. It is his most ambitious film to date and it succeeds in standing alone from his already impressive catalog with some missing elements: no classic rock tunes and the familiar story of family is missing. Even the innocence has been toned down with a few moments of violence and vulgarity. However, it is still impressive that all of it still feels like an authentic, singular voice.

It also helps that Ralph Fiennes is phenomenal in the film. By finding optimism in an area populated by war and cynicism, he manages to walk the line between eccentric and out of place perfectly. With an upbeat candor, his journey feels pure and full of wonderment as he comes across many terrors and people trying to harass his lobby boy. The supporting cast is equally amazing, but what Fiennes turns in here may be one of the best performances of the year, if just for his ability to be so clueless and equally funny. There's a sincerity at his core and as he rides through a literal storybook-like reality, the whimsy remains there. The worst that could be said is that this film is Anderson at his most excessive. Even then, he manages to make it look like symmetrical art with delightful subtle nuances that make repeat viewings capable of an enriched experience.

With several components coming together, The Grand Budapest Hotel is already one of the best films of 2014 and may be its most audacious. With a terrific cast and even more gorgeous set designs, it manages to transcend its ridiculous nature and itself feel like an honest tale of war and struggle. It is unlikely that the film is going to be mistaken for any other film out there, and that alone may be its highest compliment. It is full of adventure, wit, and juxtapositions to the normalcy of how films work. It takes the limits of film and expands it by leaps and bounds. It may at times feel impersonal, but there are layers to dissect and small moments to catch. More than anything, The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of those rare films that manage to be so singular in voice while remaining accessible.

Left to right: Willem DaFoe and Adrien Brody
It is too early to answer the question "Does this film deserve Oscars?," but that shouldn't stop speculation. I love this film and would argue that its the most beautiful film that I have seen since The Great Gatsby last year. I haven't seen a film so realized with set designs and costuming in quite some time. Also, with The Godfather celebrating its 42nd anniversary yesterday, I would love to believe that this film's early release will not be a factor when considering it later on down the line. Sadly, it probably will, but the audacity and buzz around this film should likely keep it in the conversation for quite some time.

Staring off with the Oscars I do believe it stands the most chance of getting: Best Set Design and Best Costume. Yes, it is too early to determine whether the film will win either, but can anyone who has seen this film not make a strong case for it? Every scene has beautifully crafted clothes that somehow complement the backdrops and even the layout of the hotel itself is something majestic. It also incorporates miniatures and silhouettes. What other film is likely to use Best Set Design as creatively as this? Speaking as it is the most beautiful film that I have seen since The Great Gatsby, it is likely to be a shoe-in here, notably because that film won these categories despite an earlier release in 2013. Also, anyone who appreciates the work that he did with aspect ratios in this film should guilt themselves into using one of the most audacious techniques to tell a story in quite some time.

I sadly cannot see Wes Anderson sneaking into the Best Director chair. He has a very distinct picture that comes through in such a riveting way, but unless the film manages to remain popular against the slot of films coming out during prestige season, it isn't likely to happen. At best, I think we'll see a compensation for this in the Best Adapted (Inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig) Screenplay category. It is the most ambitious of the main categories in that it doesn't win on anything but how the story plays out. In the case of Best Original Screenplay, it usually goes to the most creative film. Also, with a very wordy dialogue and some clever use of language, it does seem likely to stand a strong chance. It also does because Anderson made it into this category for his previous film Moonrise Kingdom with co-writer Roman Coppola. It didn't win, but it set the entry way for a potential nomination.

It is also hard to determine whether we shall call Ralph Fiennes a Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor nominee. He is central to the story, but when considering the grand scheme of things, it is more of the writer's story, who isn't all that present. However, when the consideration process comes through, I do hope that Fiennes gets his due for turning in one of the first memorable performances of 2014. He brings life and eccentric glee to Wes Anderson dialogue and has an edge of slapstick to him that is translated well into the film's whimsical nature. Of the supporting cast, Willem DaFoe or Adrien Brody could be considered, but seems less likely. Also, Fiennes is a veteran at the Oscars, having lead two Best Picture winners (Schindler's List, The English Patient). It is evident that this hasn't helped films of his in the past, but with a vision so pure and perfect, hopefully it will be enough.

Then there is Alexandre Desplat's score. While I can speculate about every other film coming out in 2014 as being potential nominees, it is impossible to consider score. As it stands, many of this year's definite nominees haven't even been created yet. However, with Desplat coming off of a Best Original Score nomination for Philomena, he already has attention for any potential further nomination. The score for The Grand Budapest Hotel in particular is a lush and beautifully authentic score that mixes strings, harpsichord, hand claps, upright bass, and other techniques to make some catchy music. It benefits the film and in facts adds more soul to Anderson's film than the familiar classic rock tracks that benefited him in the past.

Finally, there is the question on if it could be a Best Picture nomination. In reality, I would say no. If you look at last year's nine nominees, they all were released after October. That is an egregious offense to the other nine months that will hopefully be changed in next year's ceremony. With that said, last year didn't have any accessibly unique films that came out in March that made hypothetical sense to be a Best Picture nomination. Maybe this could break the taboo. I would like to hope so, but for the time being, the year has to play out and see how relevant Anderson's epic will likely be when all is said and done. 

I personally am rooting for it to get a considerable amount of nominations in the categories discussed. It is a wonderful film from a filmmaker whose audacity is matched by his whimsy and beauty. It may be too eclectic for some, but as a whole, it manages to have a whole lot of charm. If the film does manage to withstand time, I do feel we could be shifting into an era where the Academy again recognizes that great film comes out during all months of the year. It also helps that Anderson's past two films are both decorated with Oscar nominations that raise his chances here. That alone would feel like the ultimate triumph for me.

Does The Grand Budapest Hotel stand a chance at all at an Oscar nomination? Is the whimsy and offbeat nature going to be too much? Who is likely to usurp Alexandre Desplat in the Best Original Score category?


  1. Fun, zippy, hilarious and a whole bunch of fun. May not be all that weighty, but definitely a good time. Good review.

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