The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s screwball caper finds the art in artifice
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Directed by Wes Anderson
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe
As a filmmaker, Wes Anderson has his detractors. I’m not one of them, but I know why they exist. His obsessively art-directed films, busy with background details and laden with literary references, can strike some as self-consciously, standoffishly twee. From Bottle Rocket to Rushmore to The Royal Tenenbaums to Fantastic Mr. Fox to Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson has made a career of crafting movies that are half art-house comedies, half award-winning fourth-grade dioramas. To some, that atmosphere can be stifling, leaving nothing to the viewer’s imagination and relying entirely on the filmmaker’s vision. Crack the glass cloche surrounding his works, though, and you’ll find warm, inventive, endlessly amusing treasures. The Grand Budapest Hotel, a whimsical chocolate box painting of a comedy, could be Wes Anderson’s most Wes Andersony film to date. That’s great news for fans, and maybe just what’s needed to lure others off the fence.
There are stories within stories here, starting with Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty, Batman Begins) as a famed author most noted (or worshipped, perhaps) for his novel The Grand Budapest Hotel. As our third-wall-breaking narrator, he relates to us the story of the time when, as a young man, he stayed at the faded titular tourist spot. There, he met the hotel’s mysterious owner (F. Murray Abraham), who told him the story of the hotel’s legendary concierge M. Gustave. As the layers of this Russian nesting doll are peeled away, decade by decade, we end up back in the 1930s exploring the film’s central narrative.
Between the wars the Grand Budapest Hotel was the crown jewel of Europe, the last holdover of a more elegant era. And polishing that jewel on a daily basis was M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). A fastidious perfectionist, a dandy with a dirty mouth and a stickler for Old World rules, Gustave is presented as a towering, intimidating figure—particularly for young Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori), a wide-eyed North African refugee who has just inherited the position of the Grand Budapest’s new lobby boy. Taking the lad under his wing, Gustave starts teaching the boy the ropes of the business—not all of which revolve around hotel management. Gustave believes in going the extra mile for his clients—which often involves him bedding the elderly widows who frequent the Grand Budapest. For him, it’s all about appearances. What happens behind closed doors is irrelevant. So long as everyone’s well dressed and there are fresh flowers in the lobby, life is good.
When one of Gustave’s frequent paramours (Tilda Swinton in elaborate old age makeup) winds up dead, the concierge and lobby boy get swept up in a crackpot caper involving a missing will, a stolen painting and a bunch of greedy relatives. To that you can add the looming specter of war, a scary assassin, a prison escape and a youthful love affair. Also pastries. Lots of pastries. As the plot progresses, the guest stars pile up: Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson. Many have worked with Anderson before. All are welcome sights.
The Grand Budapest Hotel goes to great lengths to hide its association with the real world. Although set between world wars, the action takes place in an imaginary country (Zubrowka) besieged by fictional forces. Our heroes eventually find themselves pursued by fascist troops, but the subtly altered S.S. uniforms here belong to officers of the “Zig Zag” army. It’s as if the whole of history had been reimagined as a middle school play.
Despite the patently artificial trappings, this may be Anderson’s most mature work, alternately naughty and knowing. Fiennes, beautifully liberated, delivers a comedic performance few of his past roles have afforded him the freedom to explore. He’s a riot as the uptight libertine—rigidly unimpeachable when it comes to customer service, foul-mouthed and blustery when things don’t go his way and offhandedly honest about his carnal desires. Revolori is a genuine find as the starstruck youngster with the penciled-in mustache who hangs on Gustave’s every word as if it were gospel from God. As the film goes on, a stronger undercurrent of the political creeps into things, giving this breathless farce the sly, thumb-on-the-scale weight of a film like To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch’s timely 1942 war comedy).
At the end of the day, The Grand Budapest Hotel is undeniably, categorically the work of Wes Anderson. He is, as always, the smartest kid in the sandbox. It’s entirely conceivable Anderson made this film simply because he wanted to do something with a funicular railway in it. (They are cool.) But in surrendering fully to his madcap vision, he’s crafted a straight-faced screwball comedy that feels somehow less rarified than his other films. It’s funny and exciting and looks like it was shot on the set of some time-lost Tim Burton sitcom. Unlike some of Anderson’s more claustrophobic films (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited), this one feels like it’s been taken out of the museum and set free. Can a film be idiosyncratically arty and unabashedly crowd pleasing at the same time? Apparently so.