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Michael Jones Headshot

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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What a charming movie. What fun everyone seemed to have in making it. All the actors get to overact outrageously. The set designers, at the mercy of Wes Anderson's exquisite taste in all things, seemed to beg for more: one more hotel room, one more hotel lobby, one more corridor in a hotel of endless corridors. The costume designers populate scenes with fanciful uniforms, Downtown Abbey-esque dowager get ups that are rich works of arts, and when anything seems the slightest bit mundane, the Director makes the camera do something that only Wes Anderson thinks a camera should do.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a gentle fable, set in a never never land between the wars in the same Mitteleuropa that we've experienced in movies like Duck Soup or books like Johannes Cabal the Detective. In this case: Zubrowka. But, of course, it is actually set in the fertile imagination of its Director, Wes Anderson, an imagination that gave us one of the great movies of the 21st century, Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

After a rather creaking start to set the stage, the movie sets up shop at the mythical Grand Budapest Hotel which is not (spoiler alert) in Budapest, but looms like a wedding cake above a charming town somewhere in Zubrowka, accessible only by a funicular. Or, in my case, by paying $10.50 (plus popcorn and a Coke) to see the XD version at the Evanston Theater.

When it finally arrives in Zubrowka, circa 1932, it becomes, in turn, a comedy, a caper, with several rather outré romantic entanglements adding more spice to the sauce. As with all Wes Anderson movies it is dominated by his impeccable taste in all things. Unlike his last movie, Moonrise Kingdom, which, to me, was an example of how being too cute can quickly turn into being depressingly cloying. And, thinking about it just now, how delicate the balance is between producing humor through interesting, perhaps over the top characters, with an unusual boy/girl subplot, and the same formula veering into a creepy Ralph Lauren-esque catalogue of a cartoon which couldn't lose that creepiness despite a hurricane and the spectacle of Harvey Keitel in a Scoutmaster's uniform complete with shorts.

In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson is back on form. Maybe not the absolute perfection of Aquatic, I mean there is only one Mona Lisa, but close. A few plot lines that lead nowhere, rankle an otherwise wonderful way to spend two hours.

Beyond the wonderful visuals, it is made movie of the year the great performance of Ralph Fiennes. In a role that I hope was fun to play, because it is an absolute joy to watch. For when TGBH flashes back to 1932, and we are introduced to the legendary concierge, M. Gustav/R. Fiennes, we let loose these mortal coils and are subsumed into the magic world of movies. We become one with the business of running a grand hotel, of menu selection, wine selection, of charming the dowagers who come season after season for the fabulous rooms, the charming views and, most of all, to enjoy the attentions of the hotel's public face (among other body parts)...M. Gustav.

A man for all seasons and reasons: a poetry lover, an esthete and an opinionated man of taste who does not suffer anyone else's sense of taste well. A gentleman, a rogue, a man of honor, whose honor can slip a little this way or that, depending on the terrain and circumstances.

Fiennes creates a character as vivid as Hercule Poirot, with whom he shares a number of the same qualities. Ably assisted, and sometimes upstaged, by Wes Anderson's stock company of famous actors in minor roles. The cast having great fun with a story that takes us from grand hotel, to steam trains in the snow, to the vast Schloss Lutz behind high iron gates, to Mendl's bakery, to sinister border crossings, all amidst the threat of an impending war.

In too short a time, the movie was over, and some in the audience, dazzled by what had transpired on the screen, applauded. A gesture I've always dismissed as self-congratulatory egoism, but, in this case, still under the spell of M. Gustav, endurable, even without a M. Gustav quality sneer marring my smile at the end.

We first tried to see this movie Saturday, but it was sold out. Today, on a Sunday morning, even paying the premium for XD, it was close to filling even the front rows. Which belies the notion that America has become a covey of cretins amused by talking ferns, pies in the face and moved only by violent coarseness.

Packed, for a movie that requires as much taste to enjoy as it took to make.

Which reminds me of a creative presentation I once had to sit through. An agency was selling a storyboard with the curious positioning of "it will be shot like a Wes Anderson movie." Hmmm? Really? Do they sell Wes Anderson's style on aisle nine of my local Walmart? Can just anyone do Wes Anderson? Is the vision of how to decorate room 224 in The Grand Budapest Hotel fungible? The design of the staircase? Can anyone daub paint on a canvas and make it a Pollock? Know a few chords and become Keith Richards?

No, of course not. And, when you see one of Mr. Anderson's movies you know you are seeing something unique, a work of imagination, a distillation of life's experiences re-imagined for the screen. He's like Marquez only he makes movies: a universally appealing imagined realism.

I don't think there are any belly laughs in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Mostly it is pure whimsy done with tongue firmly in cheek. It called to mind the spirit of the wonderful movie Harvey. There is much that will remind a movie fan of Elwood P. Dowd in M. Gustav. "Mordant humor" came to mind as I walked home in the freezing wind along the lake. Hmmm, would citing Harvey and using "mordant humor" encourage readers to see it in a theater, not in a den? Whether Harvey or mordant or what to do during this freezing spring, this movie deserves a big screen.

But, then again, I'd bet few remember Harvey. And, how many consider whimsy a selling point in a world of Jackass movies? Maybe "mordant humour," adding the "u," will do the trick.

I could urge you by describing the wonderful pastries, three feet high on a movie screen, that form a major plot line in TGBH. Delightful, lip-smacking pastries from Mendl's, a bakery in the town below the hotel, delivered in beautiful boxes tied with powder blue ribbons. Like the chariot race in Ben-Hur, these pastries demand the dimensions of a huge movie screen.

I left the theater happy and hungry.

We're all hungry, I think, for quality. We're all suckers for a fully realized world populated by amazing characters, involved with contested wills, stolen masterpieces, hidden messages, true love and border guards checking your papers. We all want heroes to emulate, and M. Gustav, the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel is a hero. Vain, an enthusiastic hedonist of vague sexuality, a person with standards in a world with few standards left, he mesmerizes on the big screen.

I give TGBH a five Sacher Torte (with an apfelstrudel thrown in for good measure) review. Go see this movie, while you can, in a theater.

It's even all right to clap at the end.