Palo Alto Weekly

- March 21, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (3 stars)

If there were a valid critique to be given of "The Grand Budapest Hotel" — writer-director Wes Anderson's latest, highly stylized ode to a place that might have been — it would be that Anderson has fallen victim to his own tropes. But you won't hear that here. The film is just too much fun; and the fact is, it wouldn't be nearly so enjoyable if it weren't for Anderson's over-the-top style.

"Budapest," like the bulk of Anderson's work is a carefully crafted visual confection of dreamy nostalgia. The film's sets are lush and saturated with color. Every shot is carefully choreographed, every hue deliberately tied to an evocative palate. It's as if the character's costumes were plucked directly from a Victorian-era illustrated children's book: Prisoners wear striped pajamas, soldiers have epaulets on the shoulders of their tailored wool coats and jackboots on their feet.

The heart of this outlandish caper-comedy-murder-mystery takes place in 1939, on the eve of a fictional world war in a fictitious central-European country, the Republic of Zubrowka. It begins with the death of Madame CÚline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (played by a latex-masked, liver-spotted Tilda Swinton). Madame D, as she is called, is the much-older lover of our story's protagonist, Monsieur Gustave H. (vibrantly portrayed by Ralph Fiennes), the head concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, which rests high in the idyllic mountains of Zubrowka.

Upon learning of her demise, Gustave and his recently hired lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori), set off to pay their last respects — unwittingly thrusting themselves into the midst of a violent power struggle within the wealthy estate of the Desgoffe und Taxis.

Gustave is framed for murder, imprisoned and breaks free — with the help of some rock hammers smuggled into the jail inside ornately decorated pastries, natch.

A series of cartoonish montages ensue — with Gustave and Zero scurrying about by train, gondola, sled and motorcycle (often at an unnaturally accelerated speed, in a manner recalling the tomfoolery of The Three Stooges) — collecting evidence against the real murderers and avoiding the authorities, Madame D's greedy son, Dmitri (played with an air of cold, blueblooded entitlement by Adrien Brody), and his leather-clad henchman, Joplin (a glowering and fearsome Willem Dafoe).

Due to the film's breakneck pace and the myriad cameos from familiar Anderson collaborators, including Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton and Owen Wilson, the audience never really gets a chance to delve deeply into what makes the story's leading men tick. As such, it could be said that the characters in "Budapest" are lacking in depth, especially by comparison to the Anderson's previous work.

Then again, "Budapest" isn't meant to mirror "The Life Aquatic" or "Rushmore." It is comic caper — more akin to 1963's epic ensemble adventure "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" than 1967's dialog-heavy "The Graduate" (which is rumored to be one of Anderson's major influences).

In "Budapest," Anderson is not examining the faults, hang-ups and idiosyncrasies of individuals; he is examining the faults, hang-ups and idiosyncrasies of two colliding cultures. Gustave, Zero and all those who fight with them, function as a kind of personification of The Grand Budapest Hotel and the world for which it stands — a world where etiquette, poetry, literature and art are humanity's greatest achievements.

Anderson's storybook stylization and his deadpan sense of humor work well before this most bleak of historical backdrops. In "Budapest," Anderson is meditating on an era, which prompted Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase "the banality of evil" and inspired such works as "Life is Beautiful" and "Catch 22." It was an absurd time and in "Budapest" Anderson proves he is nothing if not adept at capturing the absurdity of the human condition.

Rated R for language, some sexual content and violence. One hour, 39 minutes.

— Nick Veronin

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