They somehow don’t all contain the same magic. Or, perhaps I could say, their magic sometimes eludes you.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” eludes me.
Not that there isn’t much to appreciate here: The story takes place in a fictional spa hotel of an imaginary Mitteleuropa country in a make-believe 20th century.
So costumes, sets and decor are marvelous to behold, a mixture of fading Swiss-Viennese-alpine fin-de-siècle grand-hotel grandeur, a riot of ‘30s-era haute couture, a fastidious superficiality in all its appointments and manners. Breathtaking.
Anderson shoots much of the film in the seldom-used Academy ratio or aperture (4:3) that has the effect, to the modern viewer at least, of squeezing characters and settings into a vertical frame.
Anderson further enhances his illusion by using sets and camera angles that seem to shrink the far sides of the frame even more, thus hemming his characters into an artificial world.
Anderson is so appreciated by actors that most of his previous stars re-up. Then he adds a few new stars to each succeeding film. At this rate, he will have to write for a cast of hundreds.
Thus, a who’s-who of top actors checks into “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Two new thespians, Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, star as Monsieur Gustave H, the hotel’s fastidious concierge, and his young protégé Zero, looking vaguely Middle-Eastern despite his Guatemalan heritage.
Others include an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, enduring five hours of daily hair and makeup to play an 84-year-old widow; Willem Dafoe as a psychotic hired killer, Adrien Brody as the comic and nearly always enraged chief villain; Jeff Goldblum as the executor of the widow’s estate; and Saoirse Ronan as Zeros’ fiancée, with a huge birthmark on her face.
Should I go on?
Edward Norton plays a military policeman pursuing our heroes; Harvey Keitel is a tattooed convict who helps the heroes escape prison; the marvelous French actor Mathieu Amalric plays the widow’s trusted butler; Jason Schwartzman is the hotel’s least energetic employee; Bill Murray and Owen Wilson have very minor roles; while Jude Law and F. Murray Abraham play characters in the story’s framing device.
The latter is where problems begin. There is not one but two framing devises in a film that seems to have too many things going on but not enough actually happening.
An author (Tom Wilkinson) in the mid-1980s addresses the camera early in the movie to explain that story ideas find him rather than vice versa. He demonstrates this fact by relating the story of his visit to a titular hotel in the early ‘60s.
There as a young writer (Law) he meets its owner, the adult Zero Moustafa (Abraham), who invites him to dine and listen to his story, which takes place in the late ‘30s.
The whimsical story, if a story with fingers and a head lopped off, torture, assassination and brutal fascists can be called such, draws upon the stories and memoirs of Viennese author Stefan Zweig even as it flirts with touches of such European-born directors as Lubitsch, Mamoulian and Wilder.
Indeed in the rustic fictional nation of Zubrowka one can almost hear echoes of Freedonia, the nation of the Marx Brothers’ 1933 comedy “Duck Soup,” although this film has none of the brothers’ anarchic energy, of course.
Alas, all the references to film and cultural artifice by Anderson and his co-writer Hugo Guinness amount to little. A tale of a disputed will, a priceless painting, a theft, imprison, shoot-out and recovery is told. But one watches these plot mechanics without ever feeling a part of the story or its characters.
You get the same slightly arch, slightly over wrought but thoroughly sincere playing by the cast typical of Anderson films. Their playing takes place in flat compositions that emphasize the horizontal and vertical flow of the imagery like, as I said in my review of his previous work, “Moonrise Kingdom” (2013), cartoon panels.
The thing is, if you like Wes Anderson, there’s every chance you may like this one. It does elude me, which I regret since I want to like his films. They contain such charming innocence and bittersweet reveries that one wants to sink into their cartoon imagery and zany characters.
This one simply sunk without me.
The film debuted last week at the Berlin International Film Festival before beginning its rollout in the U.S. March 7.
Opens: March 7, 2014 (Fox Searchlight)
Production: Indian Paintbrush, Studio Babelsberg, American Empircal
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson
Director/screenwriter: Wes Anderson
Story by: Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness
Inspired by the writings of: Stefan Zweig
Producers: Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson
Executive producers: Molly Cooper, Charlie Woebcken, Christoph Fisser, Henning Molfenter
Director of photography: Robert Yeoman
Production designer: Adam Stockhausen
Music: Alexander Desplat
Costume designer: Milena Canonero
Editor: Barney Pilling
R rating, 100 minutes