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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 8, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Budapest Hotel, 700 Sundays

We went to see The Grand Budapest Hotel because of two things: It wasn't based on a comic book superhero, and it was recommended by a friend whose taste in movies is excellent, though a bit more arty and dark than my own.

The all-star cast on the poster left me with a vague expectation of a tale of the interlocking lives and loves of various people staying as guests in a European hotel, rather like Separate Tables, Grand Hotel, or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

But The Grand Budapest Hotel is not about the guests. This is a "backstage" story, about the people who are putting on the show that hotel guests experience.

The main character is M. Gustave, played with exquisite panache by Ralph Fiennes. He is the concierge of the Grand Budapest, which means that he is responsible for making sure every need of the hotel guests is met.

Every service provided by the hotel must meet his standards; he is the judge of all the other employees, and they are eager -- nay, desperate -- to please him.

So are the guests -- especially the wealthy women whose erotic needs M. Gustave sees to personally, and with perfect discretion.

We experience M. Gustave through the eyes of a young lobby boy named Zero Moustafa, played by a delightful young actor named Tony Revolori (who has played various earlier roles under the name Anthony Quinonez). Zero is a war refugee who arrives at the hotel knowing nothing, but determined to meet M. Gustave's outrageously high standards.

Zero comes to understand M. Gustave very well, and joins with him in a series of escapades even though he knows that M. Gustave's loyalty does not include relationships with women -- he feels the need to continually remind M. Gustave not to flirt with the girl that Zero loves.

That girl, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), is a worker in a superb bakery; she has a birthmark across one cheek that is shaped like Mexico. Not vaguely like Mexico -- it is exactly a map of Mexico, so detailed that I found myself looking for beauty spots to mark the locations of Acapulco, Veracruz, Cancun, or Monterrey.

The plot involves contested wills, accusations of murder, theft of a painting, and encounters with soldiers in a Balkan war that threatens to wreck everything.

So what roles are played by the stars in the all-star cast? Tilda Swinton, who played the White Witch in the Narnia movies, does a brilliant job of portraying a feeble but demanding hotel guest in her eighties or nineties.

Many of the famous actors play, not hotel guests, but concierges at other hotels, who are part of a network of traded favors. In fact, the whole movie seems to be built upon this moral foundation: Do your best to give others what they need, and some of them, at least, will return the favor.

While it's fun to see Wes Anderson's actor friends pop up in odd places in the movie -- like Joss Whedon, he maintains a group of loyal actors who will devote a day of makeup and hot lights in order to lend their famous faces to trivial but entertaining roles -- the cameos do not steal the movie.

On the contrary, this film creates an exquisite world in which farce only one step shy of slapstick can coexist with sweet, sincere love stories. Of course, the greatest love story in the film is between M. Gustave and ... well, everybody.

The whole story is a tale within a tale within a tale. When the movie opens, we see a reader hook a hotel key to the pedestal of the bust of an author, whose most beloved book is apparently the story of the Grand Budapest Hotel.

Then we flash back to the occasion when this writer, as a younger man (Jude Law), first hears the story, as recounted by the owner (F. Murray Abraham) of the Grand Budapest Hotel in its days of decay in the 1960s.

It is not a spoiler to say that this owner is, in fact, an aging Zero Moustafa, the very lobby boy who accompanies M. Gustave on his last great adventures -- we know that almost from the start.

So actors as well-known as F. Murray Abraham and Jude Law are employed merely in a secondary frame story -- and their talents are not underemployed, though they get very little screen time. It is important that the film create and maintain a sense of weight for this frothy story.

Yet it is also odd -- and, in a way, artistically daring -- for the script of this film to declare, right from the start, that the story we are about to be told is regarded by countless fictional fans as a beloved, life-changing work of literature.

In almost every case, when a story declares that an artist or work of art within that story achieves greatness or enormous popularity, the art utterly fails to measure up.

Think, for instance, of the movie Titanic, in which we are supposed to mourn for the "great talent" of Jack -- but see only rudimentary cartoons on his sketchpad.

I think that The Grand Budapest Hotel measures up to its outrageous pretense -- the story really is quite lovely, and, if well-written in book form, might become the kind of tale that would attract a devoted following.

And, given all that happens in the story, it is quite moving to think of readers paying tribute to the writer by hanging hotel room keys on the hooks built into the base of his shrine.

This film does have some rough language, and one brief moment of trivial nudity. For me, at least, these were only minor detriments to an otherwise wonderful movie.

I doubt that this film will be in contention for any Oscars -- it has been released into the dumping ground where some of the best films are tossed when studio marketing departments decide that they can't sell them either to the public or to the Academy voters.

I think of previous favorite movies like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and In a World, which were completely overlooked when award time rolled around.

But Oscar-bait movies tend to follow formulas; The Grand Budapest Hotel is doing things that are not "certifiably cool." That is, this film required great artistry, but artistry of a kind that Academy voters are generally blind to.

Subtle yet difficult acting performances -- like many given in this film -- are completely over the heads of most Academy voters, though most of them are actors themselves.

But that's all right. American actors are so badly trained -- or mistrained -- that they have no idea how difficult it is to bring off a performance like Ralph Fiennes's subtle-yet-farcical tour-de-force in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Because he doesn't portray a crippled, blind, or mentally handicapped character, and he isn't called upon to give great emotional speeches, and the film is a comedy, it's hard for American actors to grasp that something extremely delicate and, yes, beautiful has been achieved.

I can't promise that you'll like this film, let alone love it. I hope I've given you enough information to let you gauge the likelihood of this being a movie you might enjoy. Perhaps you'll wait till it's on HBO or Netflix to give it a try.

But I believe that this movie will still be regarded by some, at least, as a gem, decades from now, when our current spate of comic-book movies is regarded as an inexplicable fad, rather the way we now view the once overwhelmingly popular genre of the Western.

A few of the superhero movies will have some staying power, just as a few of the westerns do -- think of Shane or, for some of us at least, the brilliant throwback Silverado. But when our grandchildren realize that we actually cycled through series of Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman movies, twice or three times in rapid succession, they will be baffled.

Come to think of it, I'm baffled now. But then, I'm also officially an old coot, and I've seen so many movie explosions that I no longer care. There has to be a story with characters I can care about. A movie has to be more than a thrill ride because, frankly, I'm no longer very easy to thrill.

Ditto when it comes to comedy. Farces that depend on shock value become valueless when the shock is over. But those that depend on wonderful characters never grow old.

I think Grand Budapest may turn out to be in that rare category.

So, Reid, thanks for the recommendation. I've now passed it along.

*

I have to confess that I've been ambivalent to Billy Crystal's comedy. I loved him (as we all did) when he first surfaced as the token gay son Jodie in the late 1970s TV comedy Soap. In fact, I think it's safe to say that Billy Crystal the actor is much better than Billy Crystal the sketch or standup comic.

When he was on Saturday Night Live, I quickly grew weary of his characters and catch phrases. I think for me the problem was that Crystal was never able to tell when he had milked the gag enough. He does not have the gift of knowing when to stop.

And there's also an air of desperation to his standup and sketch performances that is, fortunately, not present in his acting. It's as if he needs a script in order to put a frame around his performance. The script says: This far, and no farther.

Then I happened to flip to HBO and caught the last three-fourths of the filmed version of his Tony-winning one-man show 700 Sundays.

All of Billy Crystal's weaknesses are on full display. He still doesn't know when the last drop of humor has been wrung from a gag. He keeps replaying it until it lies dead on the stage.

But that doesn't matter. Because this is not really standup comedy, though there is some standup in the show.

Standup is just the disguise for a moving, loving memoir of his relationship with his father and mother.

The visual setting is the front porch of the house he grew up in; the real setting is the life his parents created for him and his siblings. His father ran a record store, but it was more than that -- he actually knew the jazz greats and they knew and respected him. He was a connoisseur as well as a retailer, and his love of music pervaded the family life.

As did his love of baseball. This is something I experience only vicariously -- but for many men of my age, their relationship with their father was built around one kind of ball or another.

My dad was different -- our "bonding moments" took place in his darkroom, doing the magic of sliding paper through chemicals and having pictures emerge. The miracle of cropping a meaningless picture and making images pop. The joy of walking through a junkyard with cameras in hand, finding things that, when you put a rectangle around them, would become intriguing, amazing, beautiful.

With my dad, it wasn't just photography -- it was also teaching. We bonded over test papers on the few occasions when he allowed me to help him correct answer sheets; he taught me what a good test needed to do, and what made bad tests bad. He taught me how to teach. That's the sport I love best, and whenever I'm in a classroom, I feel like my dad is sitting somewhere behind me, just out of sight, and I need to measure up to his example and expectations.

So I can understand the analogy -- baseball was to Billy Crystal and his dad what photography was to my father and his kids, and what teaching was between me and my dad.

Here's what 700 Sundays reveals: Billy Crystal is at his best, not as a standup comic, not as a sketch comic doing characters, but as a storyteller. An enthusiastic Garrison Keillor.

Nobody enjoys Billy Crystal's performances more than Billy Crystal does, but by the end of 700 Sundays, I came to love his stories almost as much as he did. If the pantomime at the barbecue went on too long, or the jokes about his grandfather's flatulence persisted long past the point where they were funny -- and they did -- by the end such lapses were all forgiven because of the purity of the emotion that Billy Crystal earned many times over.

700 Sundays is on HBO right now. But I'm sure there'll be a DVD or download available soon enough. It's a reflective, meditative show; I don't know that teenagers or children will particularly like it. But it should speak to a lot of grownups.

The moment when I knew I loved 700 Sundays came fairly near the end, when he called back a previous bit about a conversation with God, in which God tells him, Don't complain, this life of yours just happens to be the hand you were dealt.

Near the end, Crystal enumerates the cards in that hand-dealt-by-God. At the age of 62, I had my own ideas about the hand I've been dealt, though I never thought of it in those exact terms. But Crystal's conclusion made me rethink my own.

I suggest that grownups pause the playback right there and think a little while about the cards in your hand-dealt-by-God. It's so easy to see the ones that count against you. So easy to overlook the trumps and counters. Crystal puts it in perspective, and not with cheap homilies. In the hour-and-a-half of 700 Sundays, he earns the right to tell you: Count all the cards before you decide whether or not you came out ahead of the game.


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