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.

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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.

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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.

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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-