Story, Style and The Grand Budapest Hotel

I kind of feel that writing a review of The Grand Budapest Hotel could probably just consist of writing “Wes Anderson” in big letters and that’d be enough for most people. Fortunately(?) for you all and unfortunately for me, I tend not to do just reviews here, so I’ll have to write more than that. In addition to addressing The Grand Budapest Hotel in particular, Wes Anderson in general is a great touchstone for an argument about “style” in film, and how filmmakers should best approach having one throughout their career. Some spoilers after the jump.

While Wes Anderson’s all-encompassing visual style tends to lead to his detractors to dismiss his movies as being the same, Grand Budapest Hotel might be one of the easiest to defend against this criticism. While most of Anderson’s movies are dysfunctional family/youths in love stories, Grand Budapest Hotel is an art heist/prison break/comedic thriller, which puts those usual elements of Anderson’s work to the side in favor of an exploration of nostalgia and the sadness of beautiful times gone by. And as demanded by the genre, the film actually does an alright job of building tension and life-and-death stakes, and bringing some violence and darker humor into the mix.

The humorous core of Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave H is that he is an exceedingly polite and respectable man, to an extent that was absurd even in the 1930s, much less now, and Fiennes does a great job of nailing such sincere niceness without coming off as too prissy or uptight either. But the real driving force of the film is Tony Revolori, the young up-and-comer playing the new lobby boy Zero, who plays a perfect foil to Fiennes and comes off as someone wise and able beyond his years; combined with F Murray Abraham’s wonderful narration the full portrait of Zero Moustafa’s life becomes quite clear in all of its bittersweet glory. In this story, it’s not so much about Zero growing up (he’s already done plenty of that before he arrives at the Grand Budapest) than it is about Zero pining for a time in his life that’s long gone.

In many ways the story and characters are well-crafted, and the whole script by-and-large is very carefully calibrated. The biggest complaint that I had is that, in the end, Zero states that what he misses most about that time of his past is not Gustave H or the Grand Budapest, but his lost love Agatha (Saoirse Ronan). This I feel was something of a misstep, as the plotline with Agatha always felt second-tier to the adventure with Gustave H to me. It would’ve served the overall themes of nostalgia and longing better if Anderson had kept it general rather than drawing focus to one element of the plot that never seemed to be the primary focus. Regardless, the film still left me feeling wistful and a little emotional in the end, and overall I feel that Grand Budapest Hotel is a fun, bittersweet little caper film that got the reaction it wanted from me. However, with all of that being said, the pastel-colored elephant in the room is that Wes Anderson’s all-encompassing (some might say too-precious) visual style is still alive and well in this movie, and that brings us to the debate portion of our blog post.I think it’s safe to say that most major, name-brand filmmakers have their own distinctive styles and voices that carry through their whole filmographies. The most lasting and impactful careers tend to belong to the filmmakers who develop strong aesthetic themes, and yet some of those filmmakers tend to be called out for being repetitive more than others. As far as Wes Anderson goes, my guess is that when filmmakers like Anderson have a very aggressive/omnipresent style that they continuously use, they are more likely to alienate those who aren’t committed patrons of their work, and they are less likely/able to ease out of that style in later years. It’s so ingrained into both their production experience and (more importantly) their artistic impulses that there’s no way for them to separate from the style. It’s who they are, it’s what their films are, and that’s how it’ll stay.

But is that really a bad thing? I understand if Anderson’s style isn’t to someone’s taste (I can be lukewarm about it myself at times), but to deride a filmmaker that makes distinctive and personal movies, based mostly on personal preference, seems to me to be an incredibly shortsighted or closeminded reaction. If you want filmmakers that don’t overpower you with their style, or that completely change their style from movie to movie, there are still some good ones out there (Ron Howard and Jon Favreau come to mind). But I can’t think of anyone that would take those guys over Paul Thomas Anderson or Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese, so I’m not sure that we should punish filmmakers for going all-out with their stylistic tendencies… as long as they apply those tendencies to the telling of good stories.

And as always, that’s the biggest thing for me. As I established in the review portion of this post, Wes Anderson is more than capable of telling a good story, and as long as he’s doing that I’m fine with whatever visual style he wants to tell it with. And I’d rather see a new Wes Anderson movie (with all of the melancholy and bright colors and meticulous camera work that entails) every couple of years instead of more of the same anonymous focus-grouped crap. If Wes Anderson (or Quentin Tarantino, or whoever) isn’t your cup of tea, that’s fine. But if you’re going to watch his movies anyway, let’s at least move past complaints about his style and focus on the story he’s actually telling, which is what really matters in the first place.

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