'The Grand Budapest Hotel': Wes Anderson thrillingly expands his 'thematic and visual palettes'
The mid-career winning streak of writer/director Wes Anderson continues with The Grand Budapest Hotel, a thrilling expansion of his thematic and visual palettes. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, those who dismiss Anderson as an emotionally detached ironist spinning drolly modern tales using obsessively detailed production design and arch performances are in for a surprise. Here's Anderson indulging in a flight of whimsical, Eastern European fancy that works in murder, art thievery, ski chases, and a melancholy tip of the chapeau to a long-ago time when chivalry, courtesy, and Old World elegance were the norm.
Anderson's ambitions extend to the visuals, an endlessly flavorful bouillabaisse combining live action, miniatures, matte paintings, stop-motion animation, and plenty more. And it's all anchored by Ralph Fiennes and his pitch-perfect reading of Gustave H., the titular hotel's legendary concierge. The Grand Budapest Hotel is satisfying in ways we've come to expect from Anderson, as well as in startling new ways that should win the 44-year-old director fresh acclaim from those who've yet to connect with his idiosyncratic, formalist style.
If 2012's wonderful Moonrise Kingdom proved that Wes Anderson – for all his deadpan, hipster humor – can convey emotional authenticity, The Grand Budapest Hotel proves he can stretch himself thematically, even if he dances around his darker ideas more than he dives in headfirst. And, before the gushing begins in earnest, it must also be noted that as the fast-moving, complicated plot takes center stage, Anderson too often neglects the central relationship between Gustave and his young protégé, Zero (Tony Revolori).
Ralph Fiennes' Gustave H.: The most memorable main character in a Wes Anderson movie
Still, the movie contains, by a fair shot, the most memorable main character in the eight feature films Anderson has directed (sorry, Gene Hackman). Gustave lords over the opulent Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional republic of Zubrowka during its salad years before the fascist takeover of Europe in the 1930s. A fastidious charmer of impeccable demeanor, Gustave is a man of principle (a fading quality, the movie will argue), who knows the hospitality business and the needs of his clientele. He's also a man of surprising sexual appetites which seem to exclusively run towards the elderly dowagers who frequent his hotel.
When one of his aging paramours, Madame D. (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton) drops dead in her guest room, she bequeaths Gustave a priceless Renaissance painting to the horror of her greedy family, led by vindictive son Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody). From here, Anderson sends Gustave on a high-stakes, high-energy tour of Zubrowka to avoid his enemies which, late in the film, leads to an inspired sequence where he escapes trouble by enlisting a secret society of concierges, including Anderson mainstay Bill Murray.
'The Grand Budapest Hotel': 'Nobility lost' as Anderson adds 'level of darkness' missing from his previous movies
Wes Anderson's overly considered cinematic world has never felt so expansive, enveloping, and infectiously fun. (It's also never sounded so good, thanks to Alexandre Desplat's hard-working, flavorful score.) Oft-used tricks like lateral tracking shots, which can look tired or even lazy, feel fresh in this new, expanded context. And only a director as controlled as Anderson could keep this increasingly ridiculous, propulsive, and convoluted train from jumping the tracks.
Indeed, The Grand Budapest Hotel, written by Anderson from a story by himself and Hugo Guinness, takes place in three different eras, each presented in its own aspect ratio. In 1985, an aging author (Tom Wilkinson) recalls his 1968 trip to the Grand Budapest Hotel where he met its enigmatic owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner in the now-faded and lonely palace, Zero regales the author (Jude Law, as the younger Wilkinson) with the pre-WWII tale of how he first appeared at the bustling hotel from parts barely known to become its Lobby Boy under Gustave's tutelage. As troubles mount for Gustave, Zero will repay his mentor's guidance either by his own sincere, retiring self or with the help of his lady love, an innocent pastry chef (Saoirse Ronan) with a birthmark on her cheek in the shape of Mexico.
While no one would call The Grand Budapest Hotel a dark film, there is a level of darkness here that's new for Anderson. It chops off fingers and lops off heads. When it's not stomping down the street in the guise of Willem Dafoe, as the Desgoffe-und-Taxis family's vicious assassin, it creeps in from the edges. Anderson's sense of whimsy is, unsurprisingly, too deep-seated for Hitler or the SS to make an appearance. This is not Ernest Lubitsch's insolent To Be or Not to Be. But there's still plenty of jackbooted violence that not only shadows Gustave as he runs, drives, and skis around Eastern Europe with a trumped-up murder rap over his head, but also services the film's theme of nobility lost. Not the king-and-queen kind of nobility, but the one about morals, principles, and ideals.
Here is Wes Anderson at his most convincingly wistful, which requires the viewer to look beyond his playfulness and highly artificial, meticulously constructed environments. Gustave, for every F-bomb that drops from his thin, refined lips, still graciously stops in the middle of a prison break to hear every word of Zero's irrelevant ramblings. And he still greets the fascist soldiers checking for papers with a warm and genuine “Hello.” As honor, integrity, and manners go, Anderson tells us, so goes the Grand Budapest Hotel.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Dir.: Wes Anderson. Scr.: Wes Anderson, from a story by Anderson and Hugo Guinness. Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Léa Seydoux, Harvey Keitel, Mathieu Amalric, Tony Revolori, Larry Pine, Bob Balaban.
Ralph Fiennes The Grand Budapest Hotel photo: Fox Searchlight.