By Richard Ades
Some of my favorite filmmakers of all time are among the most distinctive filmmakers of all time.
Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu, with his camera calmly observing life from a stationary vantage point. Spain’s Luis Bunuel, with his surreal and wryly satirical take on society. France’s Eric Rohmer, with his chatty discussions of romance and philosophy.
I’m not quite ready to add Wes Anderson to my list of favorites, even though his style is as distinctive as anyone’s.
He can be charming, as he was in 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom. The flick had its share of Anderson’s usual eccentricities, but they didn’t overwhelm the central tale of two underage lovebirds who run away together.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for The Grand Budapest Hotel.
It starts out with an engaging setting, an Eastern European hotel that was once a fashionable haven for the well-to-do. It also features two engaging characters: M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), its refined and demanding concierge, and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the lobby boy who becomes his friend and disciple.
When an aging patron leaves the hotel and subsequently dies in 1932, Gustave is simultaneously named the heir to her most prized possession and a suspect in her murder. It seems likely that greedy family members are the real culprits, but Gustave is imprisoned before he can prove his innocence. Unless Zero and his girlfriend, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), can come to the rescue, the truth may never be uncovered.
It’s a potentially engrossing tale, but it’s constantly upstaged by director/screenwriter Anderson’s playful shenanigans.
Start with the fact that the film is a story within a story within a story and that it all takes place in a fanciful and made-up place and era. Add frequent incongruities, such as coatless characters comfortably walking around in a wintry landscape, or dialogue that ricochets between stilted politeness and earthy cussing. Throw in landscapes that look like paintings and action scenes that were filmed with deliberately unconvincing miniatures.
It all adds up to a concoction much like the airy pastries that frequently turn up on characters’ plates: pretty and delectable, but not very filling. There are so many distractions that it’s impossible to take the characters or their travails the least bit seriously.
Anderson’s imaginative visuals and all-star cast—including F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray and host of others—do make the flick fun to watch. But it would have been so much more rewarding if Anderson had forced his signature style to serve the plot rather than overwhelming it.
The Grand Budapest Hotel opens Friday (March 21) at the Lennox 24, next Thursday (March 27) at the Drexel Theatre and March 28 at the Gateway Film Center.
Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)