Simultaneously his most gorgeous to look at and most pointedly melancholy film to date, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel might not be the whimsical auteur’s best film, but certainly one of his funniest and possibly the most valid one stop shop for anyone wanting to talk about his special brand of quirks and neuroses. It’s a visual and comedic three ring circus in the same vein as something like Fantastic Mr. Fox or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but it also has the same underlying sadness and longing for personal connection that permeated The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore. The results at times kind of feel all over the place in terms of tone and pacing, but Anderson is such a masterful entertainer that such probably purposeful flaws simply zip by without much of a second thought.
A meta-narrative that’s technically a story within a story within a story within a story with one specific throughline, Anderson’s latest tells the curious history behind the ownership of a once opulent European hotel in the fictional republic of Zubrowka. An inquisitive writer (Jude Law) finds out the hotel’s owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), never actually purchased the hotel, but he inherited it after starting off as a faithful lobby boy to a flamboyant, bisexual, geriatric loving, and almost definitely golddigging concierge named Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). Recounting the events that led to him taking control of the hotel against a fictionalized version of World War II complete with invading Nazi-like troops, the tale at large involves a younger Zero (Tony Revolori) helping Gustave with a serious matter of inheritance of his own. When a wealthy former lover (Tilda Swinton) passes away, she bequeaths to Gustave a valuable painting. The family of the deceased – in particular a sneeringly evil son played by Adrien Brody – will be damned if they see Gustave take possession of it, even going so far as to implicate Gustave in the woman’s murder. Imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit and with the hotel in danger of falling into the hands of not only the family, but the Gestapo-ish foot soldiers roaming the country, Zero and his equally orphaned baker girlfriend (Saorise Ronan) have to step in and save the day.
As one can glean by the description above, Grand Budapest follows in the Andersonian tradition of being very detail oriented and populated by a cast of colourful characters that might only make it into one or two scenes. None of this mentions any of the great work being put in by Jeff Goldblum (as a kindly estate lawyer acting impartial to all the craziness around him), Edward Norton (as a sympathetic soldier and the new local law enforcer), or Willem Dafoe (as a menacing mute bodyguard for Brody’s character that looks like a cross between the actor’s characters in Shadow of the Vampire and Streets of Fire). There’s no such thing as a minor role in a Wes Anderson production, and that’s a real credit to his abilities as a writer and a director. The reason he’s able to assemble casts of this size and stature is because these actors know they are going to have something interesting and fun to play with. Anderson has become a massive sandbox builder and he’s very generous when it comes to letting others play with his toys.
While everyone gets their moment, quip, or scene with which to shine, the film revolves around Fiennes stellar work in the lead that holds everything in the film in perfect orbit. With this much going on around the character of Gustave there has to be a grounding force, and in Fiennes case it comes from playing a man whose penchant for all things refined and a noted gift of gab perfectly straight. It’s flamboyant arrogance, but it’s not from someone who swings for the fences with every potential punchline. The fact that Fiennes’ Gustave has cultivated such an air of respect around him makes his dalliances and desires a lot funnier. To him, nothing he does is remotely ridiculous. To everyone around him who can’t find it within themselves to say no to him, they just equally find a way to go along with it.
That same kind of inspired and mannered lunacy works its way into every aspect of the film from the pacing to the design. The Grand Budapest is a strangely bland looking luxury hotel that looked like the 1970s in the 1940s and then just never changed even after the modernist period it was supposed to look like in the first place. It’s a building full of innovation and promise for a brighter future that will possibly never arrive. The paint is always fresh, but it’s ugly looking paint that no one in their right mind would use. There are suspect looking cable cars, luge and bobsledding tracks for no reason, and nothing but empty, drab looking meadows and fields that make up the community at large.
It’s in this design that Anderson’s film gets some of its darkness. It’s very much a film about living in wartime, despite much like Moonrise Kingdom feeling like a storybook version of feelings that young people sometimes find hard to convey. Zero never quite understands what’s happening in the world around him, and even the most evil and violence prone characters (possibly because they are the most self-serving ones in the film) seem to be sheltering the young man from the truth about the world around him. The war and the impending invasion are always around the edges, though, eventually in the final third becoming a full on wartime narrative before reaching an almost disarmingly emotional conclusion that feels like the biggest leap for Anderson to take. It’s a conclusion that ultimately sells everything that came before it and showcases a large step outside of his comfort zone as an artist.
While there’s not a lot here that Anderson hasn’t exactly attempted before as a filmmaker, the madcap tone deftly balances with a sense of melancholy that he has also tried before, but that he hasn’t really firmly pinned down until now. It’s deeply funny and quite emotionally effecting; two of the best reasons to go to the movies regardless of who made it.