When the trailer to Wes Anderson's latest film, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," was first released, the Onion lampooned it with the headline, "Wes Anderson Reteams with Favorite Objects."
It was meant as parody, but turned out to be understatement.
"I'm so excited to be working with old elevators, rotary telephones, taxidermied animals, and outmoded military hats again" the Onion's fake news video quipped in a mock quote by the director. If they only knew. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" makes Anderson's previous films look like exercises in stark realism.
To be fair, it takes place in an imaginary past intentionally remote and obscure. But it's a cause and effect relationship easily deciphered. Anderson created this world, though he gives credit for its inspiration to the writer Stefan Zweig, so it resembles an Anderson creation — just more than usual.
How much more? It contains within its vast horde of quirky mannerisms and quaint artifacts an entire subsection of human transportation devices, including manually operated elevators, old gondolas and a funicular.
What's a funicular? Well, why ruin the surprise? Learning about a funicular is part of the whimsical charm, if you go in for this much whimsy.
The film gets under way only after numerous preludes, which all lead to the main story at the Grand Budapest Hotel during its last days of glory in the 1920s. In a snowy, mountainous region of a fictional European republic, the huge, palatial setting is lorded over by a Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a hotelier and gigolo who satisfies the needs of the establishment's rich and elderly women — who are all blondes.
"Why blondes?" asks the film's narrator (Jude Law). I leaned in for the answer but the film was moving too fast for me to register it.
Law plays a fictional author (perhaps inspired by Zweig) getting the story from the hotel's last owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who knew Monsieur Gustave when he was the hotel's young Lobby Boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori).
Zero and M. Gustave get caught up in a whodunit involving the death of a dowager (Tilda Swinton, in convincing makeup). The ensuing battle over her will puts them at odds with her greedy son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), and his leering henchman, Jopling (Willem Dafoe).
These ancillary figures are — maybe you aren't surprised — somewhat thinly developed. As in a lot of Anderson's work, characters often are reduced to caricatures, and famous actors often show up in the most minor roles, just to get a laugh. Harvey Keitel and Edward Norton appear as a prisoner and a policeman when Gustav is arrested for the dowager's death, but even though their screen time is longer than say, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson's, the effect is the same as the funicular. Their appearance is intended as a gag; their roles are secondary.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a marvelously crafted film, switching aspect ratios and moving from color to black and white. It's beautiful to look at, eye candy of the highest quality. But it's also difficult to care about. And despite its frenetic pace, it often feels like it isn't going anywhere.
M. Gustave and Zero move from one location and episode to another with alacrity, abandon and, frankly, incoherence. Often their adventure feels like it was taken from one of those late-night Nickelodeon cartoons meant to hypnotize the stoner crowd. Shifts in time and space seem arbitrary and irrelevant, connected only by a forced logic. Do we need a speedy chase down a snowy mountain on skis? No, but it allows Anderson to show off a miniature diorama created for the special effect. This is a fast-paced exercise that can feel agonizingly uneventful.
It isn't all about liking or disliking Anderson's style, either. "Moonrise Kingdom" was a vastly more modest and superior film. It was really funny. "Grand Budapest," most surprisingly, isn't, although it tries awfully hard to be. Many jokes fell flat at the screening I attended. I was surprised to hear audience members applaud when the credits rolled. Except for scattered instances, mostly they were silent during the film. Perhaps they were too mesmerized by all the secret societies, the intricately rendered matte paintings used as backgrounds, and the detailing on the funicular. It all looks really good, but there isn't much more to it than looks. (R) 100 min. S