If you’ve ever seen a Wes Anderson film before it might be redundant to read a review of his new one –either you were going to see it anyway, possibly in fancy-dress as a Tenenbaum, or you’ve already rolled your eyes resolutely and have resolved to avoid The Grand Budapest Hotel like a whimsical plague. This may come as a surprise given the title of this blog, but in fact I am a cheap date when it comes to Anderson’s work. They’re always beautiful to look at, have interesting worlds and characters and generally feature Bill Murray in some capacity, so what’s not to like? The Grand Budapest Hotel is, once again, Anderson successfully fine-tuning his own style.
There are a lot of plates Anderson gives himself to spin in the plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel, with a large cast of characters and a narrative relayed in the layered fashion of a girl in present day reading a book written by author (Tom Wilkinson) who visited the now ruined hotel in the 1980’s, a flashback to that same author (now played by Jude Law) meeting the owner of the hotel, former lobby boy Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) and a further flashback to the 1930’s as Moustafa relays the story of the hotel. The film manages to glorify both the opulence and the simpler times of the ‘glory days’, while keeping just enough of a toe outside whimsy that this doesn’t become tiresome. Yes, the 30’s had a sense of style, but in the fictional country of Zubrowska, the threats of war and disease loom in the background.
It’s in the 1930’s where the actual plot of the film takes place. Hotel concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) runs the Grand Budapest Hotel with the same meticulous attention to detail with which Anderson designs his films’ sets. He also oversees the mentoring of young Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and tends to the sexual needs of his aging clientele, most prominently the wealthy Madame D (underneath all the age make-up, Tilda Swinton is in there somewhere). When she dies in suspicious circumstances leaving a priceless painting to Gustave, he must escape from prison and clear his name, while avoiding the woman’s furiously passed-over son (Adrien Brody), his violent henchman (Willem Dafoe) and the police, led by Edward Norton. Other actors in the mix include Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson, Léa Seydoux, Saoirse Ronan…Most are only there for pleasing cameos, Ronan as love interest to Moustafa, could have been given more to do.
Accents are studiously ignored in this Eastern Europeanish setting, but it scarcely matters, Anderson’s merry band of actors are along for the twee, mumbled ride and keep the fun going. Fiennes has surprising comedic chops as Gustave, a character whose frequent flips between class and profanity are funny enough to make up for his lack of depth. The potentially convoluted plot is carefully unwrapped in a precisely paced manner. All the usual directorial flourishes from Anderson are on display but the more violent edge allows him to add tension to his repertoire, scenes with Dafoe in them effectively have a sense of dread in them. Except when he’s throwing cats out the window, that’s just hilarious.
Moustafa and Gustave have a relationship that is still a well-acted exploration of the director’s most well-worn theme (he hides it well I know but fathers and father-figures are as important to this director as old movies and feet are to Quentin Tarantino) and it’s fun to watch the two scheme and/or recite poetry to each other, but the two aren’t really as interesting as other Anderson characters. Gustave may be an amusing eccentric but he’s also, you know, a superficial sycophant. And the bygone age the film laments, fictional setting or not, was not always the most pleasant place, with violent imperialism being replaced by violent fascism being replaced by violent communism. Perhaps that was the point but there were moments when the tone didn’t mesh. Still, Anderson remains skilled at directing amusing neurotics embarking on capers through beautiful scenery and if you already enjoyed any attempt he’s made at doing this before, you will enjoy The Grand Budapest Hotel.