Anderson lets his eccentricities get the better of him

M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, left) and Zero (Tony Revolori) in The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, left) and Zero (Tony Revolori) in The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

By Richard Ades

Some of my favorite filmmakers of all time are among the most distinctive filmmakers of all time.

Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu, with his camera calmly observing life from a stationary vantage point. Spain’s Luis Bunuel, with his surreal and wryly satirical take on society. France’s Eric Rohmer, with his chatty discussions of romance and philosophy.

I’m not quite ready to add Wes Anderson to my list of favorites, even though his style is as distinctive as anyone’s.

He can be charming, as he was in 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom. The flick had its share of Anderson’s usual eccentricities, but they didn’t overwhelm the central tale of two underage lovebirds who run away together.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

It starts out with an engaging setting, an Eastern European hotel that was once a fashionable haven for the well-to-do. It also features two engaging characters: M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), its refined and demanding concierge, and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the lobby boy who becomes his friend and disciple.

When an aging patron leaves the hotel and subsequently dies in 1932, Gustave is simultaneously named the heir to her most prized possession and a suspect in her murder. It seems likely that greedy family members are the real culprits, but Gustave is imprisoned before he can prove his innocence. Unless Zero and his girlfriend, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), can come to the rescue, the truth may never be uncovered.

It’s a potentially engrossing tale, but it’s constantly upstaged by director/screenwriter Anderson’s playful shenanigans.

Start with the fact that the film is a story within a story within a story and that it all takes place in a fanciful and made-up place and era. Add frequent incongruities, such as coatless characters comfortably walking around in a wintry landscape, or dialogue that ricochets between stilted politeness and earthy cussing. Throw in landscapes that look like paintings and action scenes that were filmed with deliberately unconvincing miniatures.

It all adds up to a concoction much like the airy pastries that frequently turn up on characters’ plates: pretty and delectable, but not very filling. There are so many distractions that it’s impossible to take the characters or their travails the least bit seriously.

Anderson’s imaginative visuals and all-star cast—including F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray and host of others—do make the flick fun to watch. But it would have been so much more rewarding if Anderson had forced his signature style to serve the plot rather than overwhelming it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel opens Friday (March 21) at the Lennox 24, next Thursday (March 27) at the Drexel Theatre and March 28 at the Gateway Film Center.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

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How do you spell ‘comedy’? C-R-I-N-G-E

Guy (Jason Bateman) plays mind games with a young competitor in Bad Words (photo by Sam Urdank/Focus Features)
Guy (Jason Bateman) plays mind games with a young competitor in Bad Words (photo by Sam Urdank/Focus Features)

By Richard Ades

Back when I was arts editor for Columbus’s now-defunct The Other Paper, one of our ace critics turned in a review of a horror flick with a grisly scene: The heroes dispatched an attacker by sticking his head in a microwave oven and holding it there until it exploded.

Puzzled, I asked the critic how the filmmakers got around the fact that microwaves don’t work when the door is open. They didn’t care about such technicalities, he replied gleefully. “They just wanted to make someone’s head explode!”

It seems like an odd comparison, but a couple of scenes from Bad Words reminded me of that incident. Smart but antisocial 40-year-old Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) has wormed his way into an adolescent spelling bee, and he proceeds to launch underhanded and exceedingly nasty psychological attacks on two of his competitors in an attempt to undermine their confidence.

Like the microwave offensive, the attacks make no logical sense. First, Guy’s spelling skills are so advanced that the kids pose no real threat to him, so why bother? And second, if his dirty tricks were exposed (and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t be in the real world), he would be ejected from the competition faster than you can say “antidisestablishmentarianism.”

So why did the filmmakers include the attacks in their sordid comedy? Because, to paraphrase that wise critic, they just wanted to see Guy act mean to two defenseless kids.

Another comparison between the microwave scene and the spelling-bee attacks: You have to have a sadistic streak in order to enjoy them.

Well, maybe that’s too harsh. A cross between 2003’s Bad Santa and the stage musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Bad Words seeks the kind of laughs that grow out of shockingly inappropriate and irresponsible behavior. Now, I’m as susceptible to this kind of comedy as anyone—I loved Bad Santa, for example—but Bad Words inspires more cringes than guffaws.

A key weakness is that scriptwriter Andrew Dodge and first-time director Bateman don’t sufficiently explain Guy’s motivation for crashing a contest that’s meant for kids. We surmise that it has something to do with his own failure as a bee competitor when he was an eighth-grader, and possibly with the recent death of his mother. But when we learn his real reason for entering the contest, it’s hard not to think, “That’s it?” His ultimate goal doesn’t begin to explain his actions.

Another weakness is that, despite its hard-edged sense of humor, the film eventually gets stuck in a sappily predictable rut. As soon as a lonely 10-year-old spelling whiz named Chaitanya Chopra enters the scene and tries his best to befriend the eccentric adult, we know it’s only a matter of time before Guy’s icy heart begins to melt.

If Bad Words remains marginally palatable, it’s due solely to the strength of its able cast. Besides the understated Bateman, the players include Kathryn Hahn as the reporter who sometimes shares Guy’s bed, Allison Janney as an angry bee official and Philip Baker Hall (known to Seinfeld fans as no-nonsense library detective Mr. Bookman) as the bee’s founder. But no one contributes more to the film than young Rohan Chand, who is consistently adorable as the indomitable Chaitanya.

Without Chaitanya’s lovable presence, Bad Words would be simply an exercise in misanthropic excess.

Bad Words opens Friday (March 21) at the Lennox 24.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

Live, from Columbus! It’s the Beatles!

Andy Ankrom takes the helm in Yellow Submarine, one of 33 Beatles tunes featured in Bigger Than Jesus (photo by Will Shively)
Andy Ankrom takes the helm in Yellow Submarine, one of 33 Beatles tunes featured in Bigger Than Jesus (photo by Will Shively)

By Richard Ades

Even if you’ve always idolized the Beatles, chances are you’ll learn something new from Bigger Than Jesus. Shadowbox Live’s “live rockumentary” intersperses songs from the Fab Four’s incredible canon with tidbits of information about the group.

For instance, did you know that in 1964 the Liverpudlian quartet refused to play the Gator Bowl until the Florida facility set aside its segregated ways? Or that Blackbird (whose title was mod slang for “black girl”) was a response to the civil rights movement?

And did you know that Eric Clapton had an uncredited guitar solo in While My Guitar Gently Weeps?

Well, maybe you knew that, but you won’t mind if the show’s narrators occasionally tell you stuff you’ve already heard. You’ll be too busy enjoying the music that makes up the bulk of its running time. Performed in roughly chronological order, the songs are some of the band’s biggest and best hits.

Given John, Paul, George and Ringo’s well-known expertise as musicians and recording innovators, a Beatles retrospective is a dangerous undertaking. Viewers won’t be satisfied unless the song renditions approximate the fun and excitement of the originals. For the vast majority of the show, Shadowbox succeeds.

After a few early numbers that are merely pleasant, things begin to heat up with Kevin Sweeney’s electrifying delivery of Help! JT Walker III then slows things down with the first of several numbers to benefit from his golden touch, the gorgeous Norwegian Wood.

Afterward, director Stev Guyer explains the John Lennon quote that gave the show its name. According to documentary footage projected on the room’s video screen, Lennon’s sardonic comment that the Beatles would surpass Jesus in popularity led to a boycott in at least one Southern city. The KKK also jumped on the anti-Beatles bandwagon, we learn.

Guyer begins the evening by jokingly apologizing to viewers whose favorite songs were inevitably left out. There were simply too many great ones to choose from, he says.

Indeed, it’s not hard to think of classics that didn’t make the cut: Yesterday, for one. Or She Loves You, the joyous anthem that helped to define the mopheads during their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

But there are so many other gems that are included. Some of the most memorable (and their featured vocalists): Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Leah Haviland), Magical Mystery Tour (Amy Lay and Walker), Penny Lane (Will Macke), Helter Skelter (Stephanie Shull), While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Jeff Simpson) and She Came in Through the Bathroom Window (Sweeney).

Many numbers are marked by fine harmonizing on the part of backup singers. In others, the Matthew Hahn-led band plays a leading role, as when surreal instrumental crescendos interrupt in A Day in the Life.

The psychedelic and colorful costumes (designed by Linda Mullin, Nick Wilson and Lyn Helenberger) help to recapture an era and a band that were increasingly influenced by mind-altering drugs. Katy Psenicka’s choreography is another important element of the proceedings. It’s especially enjoyable when the vocalists themselves bust a few moves, as they do in When I’m Sixty-Four (sung by Tom Cardinal, Haviland and Macke).

If you’re old enough to remember the Beatles, Bigger Than Jesus is nostalgic fun. If you’re not, it’s one hell of a history lesson.

Bigger Than Jesus: A Live Rockumentary About the Band That Changed the World continues through Aug. 7 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Wednesdays and Thursdays, 2 and 7 p.m. select Sundays. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.