The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014 movie) review…

Great Cinematography Saves a Surprisingly Pedestrian Story… After the Break…

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014 movie) review…

There is a school of thought that the rampant use of computer graphics (CGI) in movies has led to visually-stimulating but ultimately shallow and unfulfilling productions. Movies have become non-interactive video games.

But what happens when a movie appears that features precious little (or even no) CGI effects, is still visually stunning but winds up being just as vapid as those CGI-laden affairs?

What then?

The Grand Budapest Hotel, a 2014 movie, is almost a movie-within-a-movie: It both features Jude Law as a young author who briefly visits The Grand Budapest Hotel during it’s later-day decline as well as Ralph Fiennes as an 20th-century metrosexual hotel concierge of the same hotel from decades earlier, working in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowska, who specializes in schmoozing “mature” women. Jude Law speaks to F. Murray Abraham, who plays the elderly version of a young, aspiring lobby boy who becomes Fiennes’ personal aide as Fiennes’ philandering ways causes him to cross paths with a dangerously wealthy and ruthless family bent upon keeping a valuable painting that has been inherited by Fiennes from the family’s now deceased (and frequent hotel guest) matriarch. Against this backdrop is a romance between the lobby boy & a nearby pastry chef as well as an impending fictional World War I.

The star power in this film is impressive, rivaling that of the typical Classic Muppet films that featured just about every contemporary actor and actress that was marketable at the time. This film is practically no different with few exceptions: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody (far removed from his buff and gruff “Predators” role), William Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel & Jude Law, just to name a few. The “Muppet” casting is both a blessing and a curse: It prevents the film from being poorly acted but, as is the problem with so many famous actors “platooning” with one another is that the audience recognizes the actors more as actors than as the roles they are supposed to play. You’re not watching Inspector Henckels as he grapples with his childhood loyalty to hotel concierge Gustave, you are watching Edward Norton pursue Ralph Fiennes. You’re not watching a ruthless Jopling hunt down a scared Deputy Kovacs, you’re watching William Dafoe & Jeff Goldblum play the type of roles they’ve been playing since they each bought their own first mansion.

To be fair, the visuals of the film are stunning and every scene is stunning “eye candy.” The Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 has a functional, minimalist decor that will have modern-day hipsters wetting themselves with envy and the same hotel from decades earlier would not look out of place in the 1920s. There isn’t a single set that didn’t look as though it wasn’t cared and preened over. If Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” was shot with the intention that every scene was to look like a painting, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was shot as though every scene was to look like a screengrab: Entire crowds of actors look towards the screen at multiple times as though a group portrait is constantly being taken or otherwise standing still or using overly dramatic body movements to pay homage to the earlier 20th century films where sound and voices on those films were still optional.

Some of the casting works, despite the heavy dose of star power: Ralph Fiennes transcends his fame to portray an initially sophisticated hotel concierge but ultimately reveals himself both hollow and pragmatic, leaving the lobby boy as the true star of the movie. It has been reported that Johnny Depp was intended for the role of the concierge and, if that is indeed the case, then the better actor received the role. Johnny Depp could well have played the role of concierge adequately but would it have been too close to his “Jack Sparrow” persona? Would it have been too close to his “Mordecai” portrayal? As is often the case in these types of movies, the lesser known the actor or actress, the better they are in merging into their role.

If the visuals are stunning, though, the story is ultimately at fault for being stunningly average. At it’s heart, the movie is a poorly-telegraphed “Whodunnit?” mystery where the mystery is just that in name only; Adrian Brody & William Dafoe are clearly nefarious from the start and Edward Norton, as level-headed as he is, will side with the concierge that he knew as a small child over the brooding Brody. The romance between the lobby boy and the chef feels as though an entire third act is missing. The “Society of the Crossed Keys” sub-plot feels like it was sewn into the film at the last moment (complete with the equally ham-fisted montage of consecutive “fill in for me” scenes). Was this part of the story written in just so that Bill Murray could pay his bills on time?

And this is ultimately where the movie begins to falter: A movie is neither a series of paintings (as in “Barry Lyndon”) or a series of screengrabs (as in this movie) but a symphony of both sight and plot. By attempting to be nothing more but a series of “cute moments” (some of which, honestly, work better than others: A late moment in the film where the now-veteran lobby boy berates a new lobby boy is most definately smirk-worthy), the film robs the viewer of a deeper satisfaction of character development. Indeed, there aren’t any characters who evolve throughout the movie: Fiennes’ concierge doesn’t exactly refrain from his philandering or eccentric ways; The film misses the entire time period from when the lobby boy gets married to 1968 where the hotel is struggling; Brody, Goldblum, Dafoe et all are in the film as nothing more than extended cameos. In fact, the film almost seems to go out of it’s way to avoid showing any significant evolution of anything: We’re told of the concierge’s death but never see it, told of the chef’s death but never see it, or of the war or anything else.

Film critics laugh and howl at the latest “Transformer” movies and “Twilight” films but what of films such as “The Grand Budapest Hotel” that offers much of the same fare? Does it get a pass simply because it doesn’t have giant interstellar robots and sparkling vampires?

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