Does anyone besides me wonder just what goes on inside the mind of Wes Anderson? Is it a fantasyland of ideas, images, set pieces, characters and scenes just waiting to explode helter-skelter onto a movie screen? Or is a carefully conceived gourmet recipe, storyboarded to the finest detail with ingredients and instructions to be executed with precision and grace? If you have seen many of Anderson’s films, you can probably make a case for either or both. And while ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is hardly his best film (I would argue for either ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ or ‘Moonrise Kingdom’), it is his most visually stunning achievement to-date. It is a worthy jewel in the Anderson crown, and a very worthy expenditure of time and money.‘TGBH” (allow me the shorthand – I’ll waste your time and mine if I consistently spell it out) is a fantasy set in the reality of the grand spa hotels of pre-war Europe – those places where the real and wannabe aristocracy would go to ‘take the baths’, enjoy their privileges and indulge their bad habits. In this world, Concierge Gustave H, played by Ralph Finnes, is both servant and master – fixer, advisor, designer, lover and friend – to his guests. And when one of those guests, the very wealthy Madame D. (Tilda Swinton made up so as to be unrecognizable), is murdered in the hotel, Gustave becomes a prime suspect and goes on the lam with his faithful sidekick, the Lobby Boy Zero, played with wonderful deadpan by newcomer Tony Revolroi. All of this running around, including a stint in prison, is simply silliness in service of grand set pieces, exceptionally creative and detailed, but in the end, just pretty pictures that roll across the back of the screen as the actors run and jump in front.
And herein lies the failure of ‘TGBH’: there is no coherent, engaging plot to power the film. In Anderson’s other films, there are interesting stories that are told with his signature wit and panache. Here, it is panache without the wit – beautiful pictures hanging in a grey gallery. The pictures are worth the trip, for sure. But they would be so much more interesting if set inside a glorious museum – the Gardener or the Uffizi. Here the pictures are in the National (pick one) – a boring stone slab.
If the plot is not really the driver here, then certainly the cast is. This film is crammed full of some of the best cameos to be seen in one film in recent years. By utilizing flashback storytelling, Anderson offers us two casts – one in the present and one in the past, doubling our pleasure and our fun. In the current day, you get Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham and Tom Wilkinson, for example. And in the past, you get Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody – and on and on. Each is a perfect pastry from Mendl’s (ok, that’s an inside joke and you have to see the movie to get it): different, yet part of an elegant platter presented by a perfectly turned out waiter in the main dining room of the grand hotel. The segment in which Gustave calls upon his fellow concierges from around Europe to help him out of a particular jam is a priceless example. Each concierge, accompanied by a retinue of appropriately costumed underlings, springs into action as the scene bounces from one hotel to another, each with its equally over-the-top design. It is a classic Wes Anderson moment – full of life, color, fantasy and detail: I could watch it over and over again. But, as noted above, it is a glorious set piece without much story content – just a means of showing off a bunch more funny faces in increasingly outlandish costumes.
And so I come back to my main thesis: ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is a visual fantasyland from one of film’s most creative minds. But it IS thrown helter-skelter across the screen in this case, and a coherent, engaging story is missing. The good news is that this does not really diminish the enjoyment of the confection: a few empty calories now and then are a fun – and necessary – part of life. Just go and ENJOY a movie for a change. This the perfect film for that!
My discovery of the week might require you to take a bit of a hike – to Burlington or Boston, perhaps – or to wait another few weeks for Netflix or iTunes. But the trip and/or the wait will be worth it. ‘Tim’s Vermeer’ is the documentary account of the obsession of multi-millionaire inventor Tim Jenison to discover, recreate and employ the painting techniques of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. It has long been believed in art history circles that Vermeer employed sophisticated optical ‘technology’ to paint his masterpieces. Jenison becomes obsessed with the idea, and spends several years researching the period and the possible technologies that could have been used; and then proceeds to recreate EVERYTHING using period tools and techniques, ultimately spending over 300 days painting a perfectly realistic copy of Vermeer’s ‘The Music Lesson’.
On one hand, it is frightening to see how this wealthy entrepreneur chooses to spend his time and money in pursuit of this objective. And yet, it is ultimately fascinating to see him pull it off – and so you have to give the guy some props. We all have great white whales in our lives, but only a few of us can pursue them to the ends of the earth. Equally interesting is how another pair of wealthy entrepreneurs – magicians Penn and Teller – choose this as the subject of their producer/director debut as documentary filmmakers. When you see these guys doing their magic thing, they come off as a couple of goof balls. But here they are smart, articulate and very sophisticated filmmakers. I hope they do more, if this is any indication of their great talent.
Obsessions come in all forms. For Wes Anderson, it is to stuff as many actors as possible into 100 minutes of brilliant sets and costumes, confounding our senses in the process. For Tim Jenison, it is to create a perfect Vermeer. Both of them reward us as filmgoers. Enjoy!