From the first shot to the last, The Grand Budapest Hotel is indelibly the work of Wes Anderson, the idiosyncratic filmmaker behind Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and 2012’s swell Moonrise Kingdom. Every image is realized in meticulous detail, with the costumes, set design, lighting, performances and dialogue all evoking a time and place — even if that time and place exist solely in the director’s imagination. As a sucker for all things Anderson, I relished Grand Budapest’s off-beat characters, gorgeous visuals and skewed sense of humor.
Of course, the Anderson haters will also find plenty to nitpick here. But I’ll get to that in a second …
Beginning in the 1960s, Grand Budapest stars Jude Law as a writer staying at the past-its-prime hotel located in a fictional Central European country. The place is nearly deserted, but Law spots the hotel’s owner, Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) and the two get to talking. Moustafa invites the young writer to dinner to tell him the story of how he came to own the Grand Budapest, with the long tale becoming the bulk of the movie.
We are whisked via flashback to the early 1930s, where a young Moustafa (relative newcomer Tony Revolori) learns the ways of the lobby boy from the hotel’s concierge, one M. Gustav (a superb Ralph Fiennes). Gustav is a force of nature, impeccably dressed and bathed in perfume, his specialty being satisfying the every wish of his guests — especially the more prurient desires of the hotel’s oldest female regulars. When one such woman, Madame D. (played by Tilda Swinton sporting an amazing makeup job), passes away, Gustav takes the young lobby boy to the reading of her will, where he expects to be well compensated for time served.
Despite being granted a priceless painting by the will’s executor (Jeff Goldblum), Gustav is denied his prize by the old woman’s crazy family, which is led by off-kilter villains played by Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe as if both were auditioning for the next Coen Brothers flick. With the help of Zero, Gustav swipes the painting right out from under the family and absconds to the Grand Budapest, where he hides the work before being rounded up by the authorities and charged with murdering Madame D.
Grand Budapest plays like a vintage screwball comedy mixed with some very modern, ribald touches. (Only Anderson could shoot a comedy this dark while also feature a color pallet utilizing so many pastels — especially pink.) It’s a wholly character-driven work, and much of the joy of watching the film comes from spending time with Gustav, Zero and the motley crew of misfits that comprise the supporting cast. The plot, of which I’ve only scratched the surface above, is secondary here. Despite being a nominal caper movie, the story generates little tension (there are thrills in spots, but these too are mostly driven by the characters or the visuals, and often seem like asides from the main event) and there are a few scenes (a goofy late-film shootout*, for example) and details (Mustafa is how old, exactly?) that strain credulity.
And this is where your preconceived opinion of Anderson’s work comes into play. I’m more than willing to forgive Grand Budapest it’s structural failings, as the inherent weaknesses are more than compensated for by the stunning cinematography and production design, and the wickedly funny performances. (As an Anderson booster, I much appreciated the cameos by what seems like everyone who has ever appeared in one of his films, save the Hollywood A-listers that headed up Tenenbaums.) I’ll single out Fiennes, who turns M. Gustav into an unforgettable “dandy” — a term I’ve heard used (by Charlie Rose, actually) to describe Anderson himself. It’s getting harder to separate the “real” Anderson from his fictional stand-ins.
But if you believe (and I do) that it’s the distinct personality of an individual or very small group of collaborators that leads to the creation of memorable art, isn’t the director’s increasing turn to self-obsession a good thing? I’d say yes.
* - In almost every Wes Anderson movie there comes a moment that my brain just can’t accept — a single flight of fancy or act of whimsy that takes me right out of the movie, despite my apparent willingness to overlook the insanity of everything that precedes it. In Rushmore, it was Bill Murray cutting the breaks to Jason Schwartzman’s car. In Moonrise Kingdom, it was the moment the hero Boy Scout gets struck by lightning. Here it was the shootout scene, which turns into something of a circular firing squad. It’s a funny visual, but it’s pure nonsense. I’m pretty sure 95 percent of the shooters are all in the same army unit — why are they firing at each other, exactly? It’s in these moments that I feel I am granted a small window into the way the critics of Anderson’s work experience his films as a whole. Am I too forgiving, or are Anderson’s detractors humorless wet blankets? I leave that one to you …
Joe Bardi is the Digital Managing Editor for ABC 7 WWSB in Sarasota. Follow him on Twitter @JoeBardi.