Hotel Chevalier

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At this point in his boyishly id-like career, Wes Anderson can be counted on to create characters that, like the letters automatically given to contestants on "Wheel of Fortune's" bonus round, are always, always the same: They're quirky. They've got family issues. They deliver their lines with deadpan comedic timing, and they're surrounded -- almost at the mercy of, really -- lushly oversaturated, detail-rich scenes.

So it goes with Jason Schwartzman and Natalie Portman in "Hotel Chevalier," Anderson's 13-minute prequel to his new theatrical release "The Darjeeling Limited." An offbeat release strategy, "Chevalier" debuted for free on iTunes this week, a move meant to stoke interest in "Darjeeling," though Anderson has said that seeing the former isn't necessary to understand what's happening in the latter.

With the exception of a brief opening shot of the lobby, "Chevalier" occurs entirely within the well-lived-in hotel room of Jack (Schwartzman), who orders a grilled cheese and chocolate milk before receiving a surprise call from his unnamed ex (Portman).

The ex arrives, and it's soon apparent the two are estranged. There's awkward conversation, talk of feelings, and no resolution. The short ends. It's kind of like a Raymond Carver short story, if Carver's stories were illustrated by Dr. Seuss.

And it's those illustrations -- the background details -- that are noticeable here. Like in his feature films, Anderson presents the character's surroundings as a metaphor for the inside of his mind (in "Bottle Rocket," a motel; in "Rushmore," a school, etc.).

Obviously self-conscious of his own trope, Anderson has Jack arrange his borrowed room in anticipation of the ex's arrival: A diorama of a porcelain swami and what looks like Tom Wolfe; a lightbox of pressed butterflies; miniature music boxes; a freshly made watercolor painting. As Portman examines each of these in turn, Peter Sarstedt's "Where Do You Go to (My Lovely)" plays. A fitting song, of course, describing a man's attempt to understand what's happening inside his standoffish lover's head.

This being an Anderson flick, the gender roles are reversed. It's Portman who's recalcitrant, and it's Schwartzman who, by revealing himself, is trying to understand her. Apropos actor/actress selection here: If there's one person the diminutive Portman can emasculate, it's the hipstery, hobbit-sized Schwartzman.

All in all, "Chevalier" is beautiful to watch. And the release strategy -- free, and available online -- is probably the smartest move a Hollywood studio's made in some time. As for the content, there's no departure from Anderson's trademark style. "Chevalier" will entertain, but it won't surprise.
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