Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is an engaging endeavor that combines old-fashioned elegance, zany antics, and elements of poignancy in telling the tale of a concierge, his new lobby boy, and an era of gentility endangered by the barbarians at the gate.
Perhaps I’m jumping ahead, which is not necessarily a cardinal sin when one discusses a Wes Anderson work. A semi-protracted opening establishes both the hotel’s fallen grandeur and the eventual narrator of the piece, the hotel’s enigmatic owner Zero (embodied in “the present” by F. Murray Abraham). Interviewed by the “author” (Jude Law), Zero recounts his early days at the majestic Grand Budapest Hotel (circa the early 1930s, in the fictional country of Zubrowka) under the tutelage of the concierge par excellence, Monsieur Gustave. As Gustave, Ralph Fiennes exhibits long-dormant comedic chops (I’m not forgetting Maid in Manhattan–believe me) as a man dedicated to the comfort of his guests, as well as the pleasures of certain, shall we say, venerable women of wealth. When a certain Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies under mysterious circumstances, Gustave inherits a valuable painting, thus enraging her brutish family and setting in motion a chain of events where humor and horror walk hand in hand. Gustave is ultimately placed in a rather precarious position, one in which he slowly comes to rely on his acolyte Zero, as well as Zero’s love interest Agatha, and the eventual assistance of a coterie of concierges, none the least of whom are Anderson mainstays Bill Murray and Bob Balaban.
The mystery at the center isn’t exactly difficult to figure out, but that’s not what draws one to a Wes Anderson film; rather one wants to be transported to a visually dazzling, almost enchanted realm, populated by quirky characters brought to life by spirited performers, and here is where Anderson succeeds admirably. Edward Norton brings both zeal and compassion to his role as a sympathetic police inspector; Adrien Brody and Willem Defoe are triumphantly sinister and comic as an outraged would-be heir and his murderous henchman; F. Murray Abraham elevates the proceedings with his eloquent turn as the rueful “present” Zero, while newcomer Tony Revolori impresses as the young, naïve, and eventually resourceful Zero. Ralph Fiennes is perfection as Gustave, whether he is charming the ladies, keeping the staff in check, attempting to smoothtalk his way past (or flee from) representatives of the law, or forging a bond with the impressionable Zero. Buoyed throughout by a lightly classical score by Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel succeeds as a witty, occasionally precious, ultimately bittersweet paean to a bygone era where civility ultimately became a casualty of the onset of war.
Muppets Most Wanted makes reference to their 2011 triumphant return The Muppets in a lively, infectious opening number in which the Muppets remind the viewer that the sequel is rarely as good as the first (although truth be told, there have been any number of Muppet movies, and none of them have been as good as 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper). This latest Muppet romp is fairly enjoyable, as the Muppets embark on a world tour, starting in that “comedy capital” berlin under the guidance of their new manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). However, Badguy’s involvement is just a front for a nefarious plot to replace the earnest Kermit with his doppelganger, master criminal frog Constantine, and use the Muppets performances as a cover for breaking into the neighboring museums—with a larger, even more dastardly scheme to come. Will Kermit escape from his not-so-comfy cell in a Siberian gulag? Will Miss Piggy (and the rest of the Muppets) ever realize that the vaguely accented frog with stage fright is not really Kermit? Most importantly, will Miss Piggy finally get married to the froggy impostor who would be Kermit?
The fun of the Muppet movies lies in watching these beloved characters like Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzie interact not only with each other, but also the humans on display, mainly in the form of noted guest stars either contributing cameos or character turns—albeit with mixed results. Tina Fey is amusing as the prison guard (in Siberia no less!) with a huge crush on Kermit; Ty Burrell is generally funnier when he’s not trying to be—which unfortunately isn’t the case here; Ricky Gervais alternates between being entertaining and faintly embarrassed (as in his musical numbers); as fellow inmates who eventually befriend the hapless Kermit, Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo are up for anything, even A Chorus Line number. There are some funny gags, a number of good jokes, and some touching moments reflecting on the nature of friendship. While Muppets Most Wanted is certainly not the best of the batch, it’s worth a visit—you and the kids should enjoy it.