Wes Anderson’s latest opus is a charming, delicious confection, showcasing a director at the height of his powers.
You’re looking so well darling, you really are. I don’t know what sort of cream they put on you down at the morgue, but I want some.
At this point, you know what you’re getting when you sit down for a Wes Anderson film: elaborate art direction, an ineffable air of childlike whimsy, fluid tracking shots, symmetrical framing, actors moving across the screen only at right angles. And The Grand Budapest Hotel has all of those things, and more than those, all pitched at such a degree you could call it the apotheosis of everything “Wes Anderson.” To name your favorite entry from his filmography is to attempt to say something profound about yourself: do you resonate with the bittersweet redemption of Royal Tenenbaum; the Kinks-scored anarchy of Rushmore; the adventurous spirit of Life Aquatic; the coming-of-age fable at the heart of Moonrise Kingdom? For me, I’m enraptured by his sole animated effort (though one could argue they’re all “animated,” really), The Fantastic Mr. Fox, an ode to exceptionalism, but there’s not really a wrong answer.
And perhaps it was that brief dalliance with animation that brought Anderson back with an eye for vibrancy and “life,” as the titular Hotel, set amidst the Alps in a fictional country between the two Great Wars, is breathtaking in scope and ornate in detail. And the sprawling cast, full to the brim of all the regular Anderson players plus a few additions, each embodies a complete human being with personality, foibles, hopes, and a clearly determined goal. At the center of this story-within-a-story-within-a-story is the concierge of the Grand Budapest, Mssr. Gustave H. (No last name given, no last name needed.) He’s a charismatic, affable cad, who runs the hotel with a reverence for its history and significance, and his own life with the exact opposite. When he isn’t sleeping with the old, rich women who pass through the hotel, liberally applying his favored perfume, reciting poetry, or indulging in odd bits of debauchery and corruption here and there, he’s serving as a mentor to Zero, the dedicated new lobby boy of unknown refugee origins.
On screen, with Ralph Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori as Gustave and Zero, the two have a witty and musical repartee, with Fiennes in particular clearly having the time of his life. Zero suddenly becomes more than just “lobby boy” when one of Gustave’s paramours, a wealthy Dowager Countess (played by Tilda Swinton under impressively heavy makeup), dies under mysterious circumstances, and Zero gets swept up in a web of conspiracy, intrigue, and action. An incredible amount of plot is packed into the film’s scant 100 minutes: there’s an art theft, a convoluted prison break, murders, a high-speed toboggan chase, young love, old love, and a nesting doll structure that gives the entire enterprise an unexpectedly bittersweet punch. The older Zero (F. Murray Abraham) tells his story — which is really the story of Gustave – to a young writer (Jude Law), and while the scenes set in the 1930s exhibit Anderson’s trademark storybook flair (right down to the chapter titles and miniature effects), there’s an aching melancholy to these later moments, imbued beautifully by Abraham, that becomes something profound and even moving.
Grand Budapest Hotel is, above all, a story about storytelling, and the effect a tale has on the listener and its teller. Law’s character goes on to write a well-regarded book about Zero and Gustave, and the cycle continues anew. Many have been impacted because the writer himself was impacted. It’s this same level of inspiration that Anderson drew from the works of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian novelist and playwright whose own stories often began with one character telling it to another. Anderson has always been literary-minded — that much is obvious from viewing even one of his films — but Grand, more than any of his previous works, feels like literature. But it’s more than just a feeling, it’s a conscious evolution of his own storytelling ability. As if somehow, it’s not enough for it be perhaps his funniest film yet — it’s also one of his most significant, tackling big themes in subtle and unexpected ways, under a layer of screwball comedy and caprice. In fact, setting it in the nonexistent Zubrowka was a masterstroke, as it manages to evoke nostalgia for a bygone era without any actual historical details to get in the way.
But while Grand Budapest Hotel sticks in the mind and expands there long after you’ve seen it, while you’re seeing it the film is endlessly delightful. A conga line of appearances from Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Saorise Ronan, Jeff Goldblum (who is funny just by virtue of opening his mouth) and others too good to spoil enliven the proceedings with every passing scene. The production design is flat-out gorgeous, with the hotel feeling like a completely real, luxurious location and not one of Anderson’s usual “dollhouse” sets. The score, from Alexandre Desplat, is sublime. And it’s never boring, not for a second, with whipcrack camera moves and editing that keeps pace with the performers’ energy (not to mention cleverly shifting aspect ratios). And throughout, the zany magnetism of Fiennes holds everything together. He doesn’t do nearly enough comedy — though I was reminded of his foul-mouthed, gonzo turn in In Bruges — and he’s a natural fit for the Wes Anderson universe; it’s a sparkling, loveable performance. Even if you’re not an Anderson fan, the film is worth seeing just for Fiennes.
And if you are an Anderson fan, or at least Anderson-indifferent, there is so much to love about The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s a meticulously constructed seven-layer-cake of charm, and to paraphrase another thing about a hotel: you can check out anytime, but it’ll never leave you.