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Grandstanding in Budapest: Despite Its Pleasures, Style Out-Prices Substance

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The Grand Budapest Hotel


Watching a Wes Anderson film is like taking a kaleidoscopic journey- in fact, an entire three-hour bus tour, through some geodesic crystalline geode that casts rainbows upon the dullest wall in the grayest thunderstorm on the rainiest afternoon. Sometimes, however, the ornate artistry of sets, stabilized momenta of camera angles to make one feel like one’s point of view is a character of itself, and byzantine colors awash in the decadence of late 19th Century Eastern Europe, cannot mask a script struggling to find thematic coherency.

Normally, Anderson’s movies amaze me. He usually finds just the right tipping point of comedy, levity, tragedy and life’s inherent melancholia to produce truly great films to withstand tests of the most hardened cynic’s scrutiny. However, in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, now playing in Philadelphia and its surroundings, even though there are visual pleasures and heartwarming story arcs to warm one’s soul and induce laughter, the overall feeling one is left with is like one has watched a prolonged (and exceedingly meaningless as well as flippant) Seinfeld episode.

Don’t take this the wrong way, however- the time-fractured, multiple-point-of-view and temporal “Arabian Nights” inspired narrative (similar, in some ways, to “Forrest Gump”, but less complex) is very well done. The sets, cinematography, smorgasbord of fine actors acting finely and subtle editing are also excellent. In fact the problem in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” for this reviewer wasn’t so much in the gags, deft writing, beautiful visual style and/or Ralph Fiennes' superlative, extraordinary talent. The problem in this Wes Anderson film is its thematic flippancy, or rather incongruity. In previous films, especially “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”, the script was more focused. There was a line of taut suspension between life’s brutality and life’s joy. In “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, the line becomes blurred, fragile and much too lax. Instead of one being left with a feeling of water splashed in one’s face like some Zen awakening from samsara to life’s present-moment full awareness, Anderson leaves one dizzy and mentally exhausted.

It’s a shame, too. The storyline is wonderful, with themes of friendship, love, loyalty, romantic poetry and timeworn eras long since passed leaving just the right tinge of nostalgia. One wishes Anderson could tighten the reins on his chaotic motifs.