A Confectionary Tale: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Word had it that Wes Anderson’s latest favored style over substance, and I am here to confirm the accuracy of that assessment.

But first, the pleasantries.

GHB_7195 20130213.CR2

1. Color
Like all of Anderson’s films, The Grand Budapest Hotel is saturated with beautifully composed color schemes, lavish set designs, and darling yet genuine vintage props in that archetypal Anderson-esque combination of bourgeois hipsterism and pastel intricacy.

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2. Monsieur Gustave. H
I have always found Ralph Fiennes impressive as an actor, but enigmatic as a person. His turn as the effeminate and charming Monsieur Gustave is the best part of the film, in my opinion. It’s difficult to portray a character who’s so endearingly ridiculous, but Fiennes pulls it off with ease, evoking that old-fashioned aristocratic aesthetic with every purposeful stride and soothingly obsequious utterance.

situational humor

3. Situational humor
The characters in this film find themselves in bizarre situations–often inexplicably–that nevertheless are humorous precisely because they are so absurd. Tilda Swinton’s rheumy Madame D. is a drooping, yellowing heiress whose infatuation with Gustave inspires pitiful laughter, while Gustave’s consistently unpredictable utterances and long-winded poetry recitations lead him in and out of unfortunate circumstances.

Now, the film does have other merits, but these were the primary ones that were obvious to me. Unfortunately, beyond that, it’s pretty much all fluff. The script is as fanciful as Gustave H., and just as riddled with inconsistencies. For example, Madame D. is murdered early on in the film, and Gustave H. must compete with Madame’s heirs to claim his share of the fortune. Gustave H. falls under suspicion, and is eventually arrested and jailed for the murder. But the audience knows that Gustave was at the Grand Budapest hotel when Madame D. choked on a poisonous drink thousands of miles away, and therefore Gustave must be innocent. Not to worry, though.  Gustave’s difficulties magically disappear, but the murder is never solved–nor does anyone seem to care.

So much of the film, and the advertising surrounding it, focuses on confections. Saoirse Ronan is lovely as a baker’s apprentice who spends her days constructing elaborate cakes.

pastry

It’s almost too perfect, in a way: those tiered, pastel Courtesan au Chocolats are an excellent metaphor for the film as a whole. The movie even begins as a pseudo frame tale. A girl wandering in a cemetery sits down to read a book by a deceased writer; the deceased writer then narrates his arrival at the Grand Budapest hotel, where he meets the aged Lobby Boy Zero; Zero tells the writer about Gustave H. and what the Hotel was like in its glory days. None of these layers necessarily adds anything to the story (and layers of a cake don’t taste any different from each other, do they?), but they are capricious and pleasing in their own way.

The problem is that there’s no lesson embedded within the story, no revelation, and not really any character development. Yes, there are costumes, and yes, there are painted backdrops and beautiful, snowy landscapes, but there’s a hollowness to this film that seems more severe than the usual insubstantiality that haunts all of Anderson’s films. Thinking over those I have seen, there are least seemed to be a reason for making Rushmore (adolescent struggling with his strangeness must learn to accept himself), The Royal Tenenbaums (child prodigies grow up to be entirely average adults and must conquer feelings of inadequacy), and Moonrise Kingdom (lonely children strike up a sweet and innocent romance, while running away from homes that seem uninspiring or foster parents who don’t want them). What was the motivation behind The Grand Budapest Hotel? What was the reason for bringing this film into existence? As charismatic and cheerful as Gustave H. is, his character is not worthy of an intricate opus. He’s a parody of a stereotype, and while that parody is enjoyable to watch, it hardly inspires or teaches or moves.

I argued with myself for a while about this. After all, not every film  needs to be profoundly meaningful; both humor and solemnity have their place. But Grand Budapest doesn’t seem conscious of what it’s trying to accomplish. I’ve seen many, many fanciful and satirical films that use pointlessness to great humorous effect–Burn After Reading and Seven Psychopaths are two that spring to mind. Pointlessness can be a plot device all its own, but only if its random, nihilistic tendencies are acknowledged and managed. Otherwise, you end up with a film that’s frothy and effervescent, but doesn’t leave any lasting impressions.

On the whole, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a disappointment, especially after the sweetness and unexpectedness of Moonrise Kingdom. That does not mean it is entirely a failure, however. It’s fleetingly pleasing, just like those tiered pastries that one devours in the space of a few mouthfuls. But it is not among Anderson’s better films, and ultimately, it will likely be forgotten.

Overall grade: B-

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24 thoughts on “A Confectionary Tale: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

  1. […] Mikey at Screenkicker wrote an excellent post on sexism & female action heroes in the movies. I.e., he explains why you should go see Edge of Tomorrow ASAP. For the record, I saw the movie a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it — definitely more so than The Grand Budapest Hotel! […]

  2. You review so so well, Alina. I feel like I had the best idea of what the whole movie is about after reading your review. It does seem to be the merit of the movie is highly dependent on the visuals and the main character’s appeal. I’m not a big fan of those “pointlessness” type of movies. I may have to pass on this one. Afterall, I rarely watch anymore movies. I ony watch unless I think it’s really good. Thanks for the review. Keep it going.

    1. Thanks so much, Rommel! That is really encouraging. I love writing film reviews, so I’m glad to hear there are people who enjoy reading what I have to say. I thought the past year was a pretty uninspiring one for movies, and sadly, I don’t think 2014 is going to be much better… maybe there will be a couple of releases in late spring that are decent?? At any rate, I’m happy to “suffer” for the benefit of WordPress 😉

    1. Yes, it was fun to watch, but I was disappointed that so many resources were poured into this movie with comparatively little to show for it. Sigh. And I don’t see any good movies on the horizon… might just have to wait until “Interstellar” comes out! I’m really looking forward to that one.

  3. You write great reviews! I was curious about this one, being a big Ralph Fiennes fan and having seen the trailer. I like your desserts analogy and can easily see what you mean. Maybe I will wait for the DVD or skip it in favor of another one of Fiennes’ films (I am quite behind).

    1. Many thanks, Cecilia! And if you are looking for a good Fiennes film, I would recommend “In Bruges” or “The Constant Gardener.” I’ll warn you that “In Bruges” is pretty violent, though. But perhaps you’ve already seen both? I haven’t actually seen as many Fiennes films as I thought…

  4. interesting, so you didn’t really like it. I haven’t watched this, I read another review stating it was bad, but yours was more informative.The Break down helped.
    When I began reading it I felt you actually liked it.
    It definitely not worth checking out then. But I might watch it if I get the chance. I really enjoyed the trailer.

    1. You know, I enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun to watch. But I wouldn’t say that I really liked it. I mean, I laughed a lot during “Wolf of Wall Street” and I’m sure you remember how much I disliked that film! haha. Anyway, I hope you get a chance to see it! Don’t just take my word for it – you might end up liking it a lot.

  5. I enjoyed reading your review, because it’s well written, but I have to disagree with some of it. I think the film does have a point and you can see that especially by the end. It’s about so many things as well, but mostly friendship. I think it’s one of Anderson’s funnest films.

    The film needs the frame(s), because it’s told like a book (which actually justifies all the voice over for once). The story of old Zero is necessary to see how he looks back at things and to show us how the Hotel changed, with the war and the change in regime (another frame). Of course, yes Wes is a perfectionist, obsessing over insignificant details, but I think that’s precisely why we’ll look back and remember his meticulous efforts to make such detailed works of art. Plus it makes sense here because Gustave is kind of a perfectionist himself.

    To me it shows how fleeting life is and that at the end of the day it’s the people you share it with that matter and Zero doesn’t have any friends anymore by the end. He has this huge hotel, but it’s empty and decaying, in a way it’s a metaphor for his life. I’m sure I’ll get a lot more out of it on a second viewing that’s always the case for me with Anderson’s films.

    1. As always, you definitely make some good points, especially with regard to the importance of setting up the frame so that elderly Zero can reflect on his life. I like your idea about the old, dilapidated hotel being a metaphor for Zero’s empty life, too.

      I agree with you that the film was supposed to be about friendship. But I don’t think it was compelling enough in that regard. The dark scene in the snow right after Gustave escapes from prison was, I think, supposed to be a pivotal scene that re-affirmed the close bond between Zero and Gustave. However, like the rest of the film, it felt contrived–not genuine at all, especially considering how little space there was between Gustave deeply insulting Zero and then turning right around and professing how sorry he was. And how pointlessly and quickly Gustave and Agatha died, with seemingly little impact, and for completely fabricated reasons? The tragic element didn’t feel real, and as a result, neither did the friendships.

      1. I see your points. I guess the difference is that for me it works and I do feel some genuine emotion for the characters at the end. It’s definitely a bit too quick at the end, maybe it was on purpose to show how fleeting life is I don’t know.. Not sure that works for me though (maybe when I re-watch it).

    1. Yes, it’s unfortunate that there’s not much to it, especially since I think it had a lot of potential. Something else that irritated me was the underutilization of the setting–in Moonrise Kingdom, the setting (New England wilderness) was an integral part of the story. But it seems like Anderson set this movie in Germany/Austria/Switzerland just because he thought it would be pretty and fun. Speaking of Ralph Fiennes, have you ever seen “Quiz Show”? It’s one of his more obscure movies, but I liked it quite a lot.

    1. Yes, if I come across as a little harsh in my review, that’s because I really like Anderson as a director and I wanted this movie to be better than it was. It was definitely a pleasure to watch, though! Enjoyable and humorous. Looking forward to seeing what you think 🙂

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