Admittedly, of Wes Anderson's impressive oeuvre, I have only seen The Royal Tenenbaums (and I do believe my now 11-year-old stepdaughter was enamored of The Fantastic Mr. Fox) so my internal writer/director frame of reference against which to compare The Grand Budapest Hotel is rather attenuated. However, for reasons I will endeavor to illuminate, the same anticlimactic sensation that subtly nudged its nose into me like a bored but frisky puppy, after viewing The Royal Tenenbaums, befell me after concluding The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is, indubitably, a feat of sensuous ecstasy, a visually stunning display of unique originality and brilliant whimsy. Yet, in its relentless nod to the quirky, with an obsessive trajectory of the eccentric, it almost loses its foothold in something grounded, to anchor such gymnastic triumphs of the surreal reality.
There is, of course, a lovely dramatic storyline of humanity, of character redemption and vindication of questionable moral flaccidity in our hero and protagonist, Gustave H., an urbane, slightly haughty, concierge of the film's grand hotel. Ralph Fiennes portrays an elegant, eloquent dandy who cherishes a time of old-fashioned courtesy and hospitality, especially to his rather wealthy clientele of dowager paramours, like Tilda Swinton's Madame D.
The death of Madame D. sets off the engine that zips this moving picture along like one of those swamp tour boats with giant fan outboard motor at the stern, spitting the vessel forward at clips that leave one little time to contemplate the alligators that probably would be making claims at passengers' limbs akimbo from the boat. The Grand Budapest Hotel shoots along at such a farcically absurd pace, one hardly has time to realize all the smoke, mirrors and stylistic flourishes seem to be masking a self-consciously tenuous void of substance. Did alligators eat away parts of the meaty script, leaving primarily the film flammy Evel Knievel-Meets-The-Great-Escape action sequences, the distractingly daring cinematic splurges of magical color, texture, and tone, minus a solid core?
Yet I don't mean to harshly criticize such a lush and contemplative script, that does leave the audience with something important to think about when the credits roll. What does give life meaning, color, purpose? When does the call to do what's right according to conscience outweigh legal strictures which flout "doing the right thing"? When is it OK to break the law? Do greed and evil always go hand in hand? Can they be stopped, and at what cost do we strive to vanquish the enemy?
Yet I couldn't help but imagine that what I watched for 100 minutes in moving images may have been better left as a two dimensional comic strip: a graphic novel, wherein we anticipate heavy handed, over-written characters, and abruptly shifting montages of cartoonish camerawork, where fictional settings shapeshift rapidly before the audience can catch its breath and establish a contextualizing sense of place. Yes, we know this adventure takes place in Europe between WWI and WWII. But I can't definitively point to the pages missing in this narrative that detract from a dynamic holism. The grenade of whimsy's pin was pulled and there was something missing to hold the whole thing together. Pangs of "stop-trying-to- be-so-creative-and-avant-garde!" whipped its protests up my impatient skirt as the script exploded in a million directions. Which brings me to another point: We all love cameos from superstar Hollywood actors, but it was as if the Grand Budapest Hotel's narrative arc was a pretext for cramming in as many as Anderson could fit: Bill Murray, aforementioned Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Jeff Goldblum, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Harvey Keitel...
At about 3/4 into the picture, I literally began to feel that it must be the discomfort of my full bladder rendering me fidgety and unable to appreciate the insightful, provocative dialogue and phantasmagoric cinemascape. Thus, I quickly dashed to the bathroom, convincing myself I'd be refreshed and able to better appreciate what so many critics have hailed as a masterpiece of wit, intelligence and caper-y compositional competence.
Yet when I returned to my theater's seat, fully excreted, the madcap blitzkrieg only seemed to quicken and snowball into even more (somewhat tedious) clever tricks of camera and enlarged-diorama-like settings ... outcroppings of grown up kids' (writers Stefan Zweig, Hugo Guinness, and Anderson) giftedly warped and enlarged imaginations.