You don't arrive at the Grand Budapest Hotel without your share of Wes Anderson baggage. Odds are, if you've booked a visit to this film, you've enjoyed your past trips to the Wes Indies (I promise I'll stop this extended metaphor soon), delighting especially in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and his most recent charmer Moonrise Kingdom. On the other hand, you could be the adventurous sort — a curious diplomat who never really got Anderson's uric-toned deadpan drudgings but can't resist browsing through the brochures of his latest European getaway. First off, neither community should worry about a bias in this review — I'm a Life Aquatic devotee, equally alienating to both sides. Second, neither community should be deterred by Andersonian expectations, be they sky high or subterranean, in planned Budapest excursions. No matter who you are, this movie will charm your dandy pants off and then some.
While GBH hangs tight to the filmmaker's recognizable style, the movie is a departure for Anderson in a number of ways. The first being plot: there is one. A doozy, too. We're accustomed to spending our Wes flicks peering into the stagnant souls of pensive man-children — or children-men (Moonrise) or fox-kits (guess) — whose journeys are confined primarily to the internal. But not long into Grand Budapest, we're on a bona fide adventure with one of the director's most attractive heroes to date: the didactic Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes mastering sympathetic comedy better than anyone could have imagined he might), who invests his heart and soul into the titular hotel, an oasis of nobility in a decaying 1930s Europe. Gustave is plucked from his sadomasochistic nirvana overseeing every cog and sprocket in the mountaintop institution and thrust into a madcap caper — reminiscent of, and not accidentally, the Hollywood comedies of the era — involving murder, framing, art theft, jailbreak, love, sex, envy, secret societies, high speed chases... believe me, I haven't given half of it away. Along the way, we rope in a courageous baker (Saoirse Ronan), a dutiful attorney (Jeff Goldblum), a hotheaded socialite (Adrien Brody) and his psychopathic henchman (Willem Dafoe), and no shortage of Anderson regulars. The director proves just as adept at the large scale as he is at the small, delivering would-be cartoon high jinks with the same tangible life that you'd find in a Billy Wilder romp or one of the better Hope/Crosby Road to movies.
Anchoring the monkey business down to a recognizable planet Earth (without sacrificing an ounce of comedy) is the throughline of Gustave's budding friendship with his lobby boy, Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori, whose performance is an unprecedented and thrilling mixture of Wes Anderson stoicism and tempered humility), the only living being who appreciates the significance of the Grand Budapest as much as Gustave does. In joining these two oddballs on their quest beyond the parameters of FDA-approved doses of zany, we appreciate it, too: the significance of holding fast to something you believe in, understand, trust, and love in a world that makes less and less sense everyday. Anderson's World War II might not be as ostensibly hard-hitting as that to which modern cinema is accustomed, but there's a chilling, somber horror story lurking beneath the surface of Grand Budapest. Behind every side-splitting laugh, cookie cutter backdrop, and otherworldly antic, there is a pulsating dread that makes it all mean something. As vivid as the worlds of Rushmore, Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise might well have been, none have had this much weight and soul.
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So it's astonishing that we're able to zip to and fro' every crevice of this haunting, misty Central Europe at top speeds, grins never waning as our hero Gustave delivers supernaturally articulate diatribes capped with physically startling profanity. So much of it is that delightfully odd, agonizingly devoted character, his unlikely camaraderie with the unflappably earnest young Zero, and his adherence to the magic that inhabits the Grand Budapest Hotel. There are few places like it on Earth, as we learn. There aren't many movies like it here either.
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The very first moment of Robot & Frank is kind of a groaner: a title card flashes before the woodlands of upstate New York informing the audience that the film is set in “the near future.” At once the golden rule of show-don’t-tell is broken while the time-sensitive ambiguity of the information can come off as careless and frustrating. But Robot & Frank is for the few of us out there with enough patience to last beyond the initial five-second frame of a movie.
Everything thereafter is wholly impressive from the engrossing confusion that overtakes the audience when we first meet the on-in-years Frank (Frank Langella) a retired jewel thief struggling with the early-to-mid stages of Alzheimer’s. The story opens with Frank attempting to rob his own house — trapped in the motions of his youthful glory days and at painful odds with his increasing struggles with memory. Frank is alone: his affectionate flighty daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) is off traveling the world only speaking to her father via fleeting video-phone conversations. Frank’s resentful son Hunter (James Marsden whose only flaw here is that his ever-present charm makes him a little hard to believe as an embittered everyman with daddy issues) visits regularly to check on his father but brings nothing but malice and judgment. The only company Frank does have is a friendly librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) the object of his flirtatious affections. Frank’s regular visits to Jen’s library — which is being “reimagined” as a digital cutting-edge social-media-incorporating blah blah blah experience — help to establish his lasting affection for the woman as well as the reality of the world in which this story is set. Jennifer like many in their society is abetted by a robot associate who helps to carry out her day-to-day.
It isn’t long into the film before Hunter decides that a caretaker robot would be the right fit for his father; unsurprisingly this is not an idea to which Frank takes too kindly. At first the highly intelligent android (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) simply insists on feeding Frank a healthier diet taking him for hikes and employing the mindful activity of gardening. Frank is interested in none of this — except for the robot’s apparent knack for lock-picking. After taking note of Robot’s (he never gets a name) skill Frank decides to get back in the game: with his knowhow and Robot’s aptitude the two can really make a run for some high-profile items like the priceless copy of Don Quixote that the new owners of Jennifer’s renovating library plan on disposing (Frank wants to steal it so that he can give it to her — a sweet gesture if it weren’t so misguided). Beyond the monetary gain from this return to action is the first friend Frank has had in years. He shares stories with Robot relishing in his pal’s unwavering loyalty (he’s programmed that way after all) but lamenting in Robot’s frequent admissions that he is not actually alive.
Therein lies the heartbreak of the story: the affair of unrequited love. While Frank gradually (and begrudgingly — don’t you worry the process is quite begrudging!) comes to care for and cherish Robot he is placed with the new struggle of accepting his companion’s lack of ability to reciprocate any truly genuine affection. Robot is there for Frank through anything. He is “instinctually” driven to protect Frank from harm even if it means sacrificing his own well-being… as he understands he has no being to preserve. And although the self-involved Frank revels in this kind of relationship at first his love for and friendship with Robot becomes a source of deliberate pain in the film: beyond his shattered relationship with his children and his waning mind the sorrow is in Frank’s inability to accept that his closest friend is not really there.
As obvious ties can be drawn between this and the tragedy inherent in an Alzheimer’s sufferer grasping at things long gone the movie also serves as a truly interesting and approachable examination of the science fiction element of artificial intelligence — probably one of the best takes on the idea that film has given us in recent years. Capped with a fun albeit extremely odd performance by antagonist Jeremy Strong (as the new owner of Jennifer’s library) as well as an always welcome visit from Jeremy Sisto (as a crafty law enforcement officer with eyes on Frank… but don’t worry the heist motif never overtakes the film to the point of crime-thriller) as well as some genuinely unforeseen turns of events Robot & Frank is consistently gripping. A rare thing to say about a somber character study. Robot & Frank uses sci-fi as it was created to be used: to say something poignant about the human condition. Jake Schreier's Robot & Frank is not at all something you have to be "into" sci-fi to appreciate; it's simply a story about friendship and loneliness... something all humans (and some robots) can understand.