This week Will Leschber takes a look at the stylings of Wes Anderson’s new picture and the latest offerings of Berkeley Rep.
I recently caught Berkeley Rep’s The Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Wes Anderson’s newest film The Grand Budapest Hotel. At face value these appear two very different pieces. The common thread is how each uses style.
Both are told with a distinct and heightened style yet one uses the it to compliment the story being told and the other implements stylistic techniques that overwhelm and distract. Additionally, both pieces are concerned with the past and how it impacts the present. Anarchist attempts to allow old political concerns to remark on contemporary politics and reoccurring hypocrisy. The production falls short of realizing this aim. Grand Budapest, underneath its good story telling, great central character performance and wonderful visual flourishes, is a dissection of nostalgia as that relates to how one builds a self through one’s past personal influences. That description sounds boring, sure, but the film is so exuberant, funny and full of whimsy that each layer can be enjoyed on its own whether you are interested in analysis or just pure entertainment.
The Accidental Death of an Anarchist follows the maneuverings of a madman (his character name is listed as Maniac) who cons his way into a police station and into the guise of a judge who then interrogates three officers regarding a prisoners supposed accidental suicide. Shenanigans ensue, farce is made, and rapid fire jokes unrelated to the narrative abound. All the actors (particularly Steven Epp–Maniac, Allen Gilmore—Pissani, and Jesse J. Perez—Bertozzo) are full committed to the zany Commedia style. Their efforts are to be commended. Yet the frenetic play doesn’t congeal. High school showmanship sensibilities, mixed with Muppet Commedia caricatures, and farcical digressions serve to confound rather than entertain. Many of the individual ingredients look great but the whole just isn’t working. And I’m not sure why.
The original events that the play was satirizing took place in 1969. Does the alternate time, retro 70’s style and foreign culture of creation, remove the audience connection to the play? It shouldn’t. Themes of government hypocrisy are timeless. But the way this production is handled, unfortunately the disparate parts fray cohesive meaning and lose connection. In addition I wondered, does the sprinkling of the last three decades worth of American pop-culture references make up in any way for the disconnect. Unfortunately, no. The inserted, fourth-wall breaking diatribes in the second act of the play where the actors separate from the events of the play to enter into modern political rants got my attention. However, if the goal was to take this half-century old play and comment on the political landscape of today maybe a newer target than the Bush administration would have been a better choice. Lampooning the last big republican administration to a largely liberal audience in Berkeley, CA seems like preaching to an easy choir. Even though I agreed with some of the political rhetoric, I still thought the choice was a lazy one. In playing to a lower common denominator, for this audience at least, the effect is to neuter this work of its universal potency. These parts don’t jive, you dig.
The Grand Budapest Hotel follows the adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.
What elevates this above some other Anderson work is the synchronic matching of a deft farce performance at its core and that clicks into and heightens the visual storybook sensibilities inherent to the Wes Anderson world. It exists somewhere just a step left of reality yet we buy into and invest in the story because all the different parts surprisingly yet seamlessly work wonderfully together. Extensive model set pieces, endless visual symmetry, abundant recognizable stars, stop motion and live-action blending, cinematic aspect ratio shift, a color palate akin to a cake bakery: all of these variant elements work along side each other with ease. You wouldn’t think so, but Anderson makes them magically complementary. In the hands of another filmmaker, this could have been an unwieldy mess.
Wes Anderson is often criticized for making films that are too insulated which keeps audiences at an emotional distance. The best of which, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore and I believe this film, provide a comic conduit that let’s us in to the uncanny, snow-globe world and emotional heart at its center. The lead performances are the distinguishing conduit. Gene Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum disarmed us with his buckshot wit. His failings as a sympathetic father are made up for by his earnest desire to make amends for the harsh way he raised his children. By the end of the film we have forgiven Royal for his transgressions and love him in the complex way his family does. We laugh and then we feel.
Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer (Rushmore, 1998) paired with Bill Murray’s Herman Blume give us a glimpse of two spiraling souls looking for their place in the world. Their rivalry delights as they attempt to tear each other down. We all want to feel connected to a home and feel a part of something. Max and his rival surrogate father figure help each other figure out how to do that. We laugh and then feel.
The Grand Budapest Hotel allows all the comic and emotional weight to fall on Ralph Fiennes.
He’s endearing and pitch perfectly funny. The sidestepping style of Wes Anderson doesn’t fit with all actor sensibilities. Yet Fiennes slips right in and lifts this story to the best of the Anderson pictures with a commanding hand flourish and a puff of perfume. Fiennes proves to be a grand farceur.
His performance, like Anderson’s style, is layered and juxtaposed with parts and contradictions that shouldn’t jive. But Ralph just sells it. The old world high society etiquette followed by unexpected verbal vulgarity; the fast talking dictatorial way he engages his staff followed by a kind a light aside to one of his passing hotel guests; these contradictory things give us a picture of a real character and lock us into a unique stylistic whimsical tale.
Josh Larsen, one of the hosts of the Filmspotting podcast, had this to say, “It’s a comedy about the tragedy of nostalgia. How nostalgia can only take you so far and how that always leaves you sad in the end in someway. ” While this is true, Anderson’s brand of melancholy when at it’s best leaves the audience with a cathartic sense of a story so well told that it is crystalized in time. It’s the good kind of sad, a satisfying melancholy. Its a mirage of what was and its worth a visit.
Larsen, Josh, Performer. ” #481 the grand budapest hotel. ” Filmspotting Podcast. , Web.
Marcus, Joan. The Accidenat Death of an Anarchist. 2014. Photograph. Berkeleyrep.orgWeb. 15 Apr 2014.
The Grand Budapest Hotel. N.d. Photograph. Fox Searchlight Pictures, IMDB.comWeb. 15 Apr 2014.