If Spike Lee makes joints, then Wes Anderson makes puff pastries – except his pastries are so stuffed with flavour that referring to them as a “puff” delicacy is misleading. The idiosyncratic director behind Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom has served his most overstuffed concoction with his latest treat, The Grand Budapest Hotel (B+), which is marvelously constructed, magnificently acted and more than a little madcap.
Anderson has a loyal niche following, except his style is so notable to mainstream circles that Saturday Night Live can get away with poking fun at his characters’ literary pretensions and his films’ precise, symmetrical look and droll sense of humour. While other artists excel by moving between a variety of genres, Anderson has made the same sorts of films for his whole career: workmanlike in their precision, whimsical in tone.
The Grand Budapest Hotel takes its name from an illustrious hotel in the (fictional) republic of Zubrowka. The film begins in Communist-era Europe as an aging author (Tom Wilkinson) rewinds to his younger self (Jude Law) in the late 1960s meeting the proprietor of the titular hotel, which has been mostly abandoned and mainly exists as a prim pastiche to the heyday of pre-war heritage buildings. The Grand Budapest’s owner is a modest older gentleman, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Mr. Moustafa, over dinner in the hotel’s posh ballroom, rewinds to his story as the protégé of the hotels’ revered concierge, Gustave H., narrating to Law’s curious novelist.
Gustave is played by Ralph Fiennes, who has the deft comic timing, exalted voice, trim look and mustache to accurately portray Charlie Chaplin without much tampering. Fiennes has not been this good in years and the British actor, known for roles of villainous magnitude in Schindler’s List and the Harry Potter film series, has never been such a delight. Gustave runs his decadent hotel with authority and eccentricity, training a young Zero (Tony Revolori, in a breakthrough role) how to competently, yet discreetly keep the lobby in order and treat the hotel’s upper class, mainly senior citizen clientele. Gustave speaks with zip and has a penchant to quote poetry off-hand, although Zero, with his hushed voice and a pencil mustache, becomes his most trusted aide.
However, in the wake of World War II, one of Gustave’s closest friends and lovers, Madame D. (an almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, made up to look frightfully old) dies. Wealthy and wizened, Madame D. bequests a painting to Gustave, which offends her salt-tongued son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and sets a series of suspicions, crimes and misdemeanors into motion. To spoil more of this frivolous story would ruin its telling. Just know that Anderson regulars Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe and Jason Schwartzman show up, but I will leave the roles and the source of their casual entrances to your surprise, too. First-timers for the director include Saoirse Ronan as Zero’s enchanting love, Agatha, and Mathieu Almaric as a butler with mysterious motives.
Anderson attempts to compress all of these characters within a convoluted caper story that unfolds through the film’s next two acts, although some of the actors (Ronan and Brody, in particular) feel slighted by the brisk pacing that rushes through some of the subplots. As packed as this picture is, though, it is dazzling to behold. There’s a bitter irony that the most plush-looking film of Anderson’s career – with vast sets more colourful and textured than many of the characters in this wartime farce – are hard to appreciate due to the quickness of the storytelling. The film runs just over 90 minutes when 120 would have been more suitable. However, The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s frenetic pace is also part of its charm. Anderson nimbly creates a plane where a prison break drama, a dark revenge thriller, a murder-mystery and a slapstick comedy can all co-exist yet never have their varying tones collide.
Meanwhile, as fleeting as much of Anderson’s farce is, there is a deeply evoked nostalgia. With the frothy feel of a Lubitsch comedy and the rich colours of a Powell and Pressburger adventure, the filmmaker hopes to bring to mind an earlier time, before war devastated Europe and the theatricality of its culture. (There is also some of Chaplin’s influence: besides Fiennes’ close appearance and attitude, the comical prison scenes owe their fabric to Modern Times, while Anderson’s mockery of Nazi Europe recall moments from The Great Dictator.)
Twice in the film, Gustave tells Zero that, “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” As the authors who open the film and some of the other characters address, often speaking right to the camera in the middle of the frame (one of Anderson’s trademarks), the past is something that can only breathe in the stories of the time. Anderson obviously feels a kinship for a classical style and probably feels the present is just as morose as his characters do.
To him, this world was a fantasy ruined by fascism – although as in any of Anderson’s idiosyncratic, imaginative adventures, the light outweighs the dark.The Grand Budapest Hotel is more quick than quirky and often more sly than soulful. Yet, it is a slice of decadent fun, a kind that few other directors can manage with such lightness of spirit and substance of style. His films are delicious concoctions, so tasty that even one as overstuffed as this one has the taster yearning to taste it again.
Entertainment website We Got This Covered also has two new reviews of mine, for the highly anticipated young adult adaptation Divergent (C+) and Jason Bateman’s profane directorial debut, the comedy Bad Words (C). Both films disappointed me: the former for its lack of imagination and ineffective pacing, the latter for its rotten sense of humour, which rarely rises to more than a chuckle. You can check out my take on those films here and here.