By Gary Dowell
For years now, the whimsical movie stylings of Wes Anderson have regularly been dismissed as something of an acquired taste. Musing stories from a self-indulgent director/writer drenched in artifice and contrivance. Granted, there’s a lot of truth to that, but to dismiss them outright is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Truth be told, Anderson has been fine-tuning his cinematic voice for years, and The Grand Budapest Hotel represents a milestone in his career. It is easily one of Anderson’s most fanciful movies and that says a lot. Still, it is arguably one of his more nuanced and measured films to date. The product of a writer-director more in control of his style and story instead of the other way around.
The oddball tale has a nesting-doll structure that begins with a girl visiting a monument to a deceased figure known only as Author. She flips open a book titled The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the movie immediately flashes back to the man (actor Tom Wilkinson) as he sets up the story. We flash back again to 1968 where the Author (actor Jude Law) is visiting said hospice. It’s a run-down shadow of a once-great institution in the heart of the fictional Eastern European nation of Zubrowka. By chance he meets the hotel’s proprietor, Zero Moustafa (actor F. Murray Abraham.) He provides a warm and melancholic center to the madcap tale to come. He shares the tale of how he came to own the place.
Then we flash back one more time to Zubrowka circa 1932. It’s a nation on the brink of war while the Grand Budapest is a much more vibrant and hopping place. Imagine Kubrick’s version of the Overlook Hotel with a Willy Wonka color scheme inside a snow globe. Zero (actor Tony Revolori) is a rookie lobby boy under the tutelage of concierge M. Gustave (actor Ralph Fiennes.) Gustave is equal parts charming, competent, and oily. A man who channels his sexual urges into wooing and bedding the bevy of wealthy dowagers who frequent the establishment.
One of Gustave’s patrons dies under mysterious circumstances and he inherits a priceless painting the family revolts. This sets off a chain reaction of intrigue, murders, chases, prison escapes, and shoot-outs with some earnest young love.
Anderson’s theatrical framing style is still present. This time it is filtered through the likes of Ernst Lubitsch, and Irving Thalberg, with a nod towards the days of studio backlots that defined the Golden Age of Hollywood. His structure still has a clockwork rigidity to it, but there is more than enough room for his players to maneuver. An eclectic cast of Wes Anderson regulars and newbies that include Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, and many others. They all flourish in the midst of his carefully orchestrated chaos. Fiennes especially is in fine form. He runs wild in a complex role that covers the gamut of pompous, randy, heroic, domineering, confident, selfish, and fatherly. Often in the space of a single line.
Despite the chaos swirling within it, The Grand Budapest Hotel never loses its focus. The film has a heart that lies in a rumination of love, loss, and home that resonates throughout. It gives the movie a reason for being beyond that of a mere spectacle.