Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

by Carrie Kahn on March 14, 2014

Anderson’s old fashioned adventure tale captivates, delights

Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H. and Tony Revolori as the Lobby Boy Zero contemplate their options in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H. and Tony Revolori as the Lobby Boy Zero contemplate their options in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Wes Anderson is one of those polarizing filmmakers whose films are either loved or hated. His legions of fans delight in his highly stylized artistry, whimsical storytelling, and quirky characters, while his detractors deride his pictures as pretentious at worst and lightweight at best. Anderson’s newest offering, The Grand Budapest Hotel, however, should satisfy his fans and critics alike, as it melds his trademark fairy tale sensibility with an undercurrent of melancholy and solemnity that keep the picture from being too cloying or precious.

Based loosely on the writings of Stefan Zweig, an early 20th century Austrian writer, Anderson’s story is a time-shifting tale set in the fictional eastern European country of Zubrowka. In 1985, an unnamed Writer (Tom Wilkinson) describes his 1968 visit to the Grand Budapest Hotel in Zubrowka’s high mountainous region, where he (now played by Jude Law) hears the fantastical story of how the Hotel’s current owner, Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) came to possess the property.

As Zero begins recounting his story, the picture flashes back to 1932, when the young Zero (Tony Revolori, appropriately earnest), an immigrant to Zubrowka, first gains employ as a Lobby Boy at the Grand Budapest Hotel under the tutelage of the Hotel’s refined and masterful concierge, M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, appearing to enjoy himself immensely). M. Gustave is one of Anderson’s best creations to date, a consummate professional and exemplar of sophistication whose strict adherence to a polished, professional code of ethics contrasts with the absurdity of the impending totalitarianism and war about to overtake his small country (WWII here is loosely veiled; stark double ZZs are the conquering regime’s symbol).

M. Gustave and Zero become embroiled in a caper involving the contested will of the wealthy Madame D. (an almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), an elderly woman who was excessively fond of M. Gustave (whose definition of room service, let’s just say, went above and beyond). When Madame D. passes away, she leaves M. Gustave a valuable painting, an act that her scoundrel of a son, Dimitri (Adrien Brody), resents to such a degree that he not only frames M. Gustave for his mother’s murder, but he also sets his henchman (Willem Dafoe, well cast) to seek Gustave out and make sure he stays out of the way.

Thanks to the magic of Hollywood make up artists, Tilda Swinton is almost unrecognizable as the 84-year-old Madame D.

Thanks to the magic of Hollywood make up artists, Tilda Swinton is almost unrecognizable as the 84-year-old Madame D.

From there, the story unfolds as a grand adventure, with Anderson’s usual stable of favorite actors – Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, and Edward Norton, among others, all putting in appearances big and small to great comedic and highly entertaining effect. Saorise Ronan is especially lovely as Agatha, young Zero’s love interest, a baker’s assistant who devises a unique way to help M. Gustave escape after he is falsely imprisoned for Madame D.’s murder. And sharp viewers will spot Léa Seydoux, she of the blue hair in Blue is the Warmest Color, in a brief role as a maid in Dimitri’s household.

Anderson’s penchant for bold, bright, saturated colors is on full display here, making the film beautiful to behold and a feast for the eyes. The first glimpse of the Grand Budapest Hotel in its glory days of the early 1930s, for example, is utterly breathtaking; the Hotel is luxurious and vibrant, a pink cotton-candy castle-like fantasy set against a blinding, vast, pure white snow-covered backdrop. That image is just one of many masterful visual poems Anderson creates throughout the film. A film school graduate student could no doubt write a thesis on Anderson’s use of color alone.

Willem Dafoe and Adrien Brody play dastardly villains Jopling and Dimitri.

Willem Dafoe and Adrien Brody play dastardly villains Jopling and Dimitri.

But beyond that aesthetic, this picture stands out from Anderson’s previous work because of its more serious tone. While Anderson’s last film, Moonrise Kingdom, for example, had similar charming characters, a madcap adventure story, and a heightened palette, it lacked a certain depth that The Grand Budapest Hotel has. Here, the zany adventure still happens and the characters’ dialogue is still deadpan and dry, but set against the backdrop of oppression, death, and war, these elements take on a whole new meaning. In the face of the horror and futility of war, the compassion and humanity that the characters display here – whether through wry humor or unrelenting propriety (watch the way M. Gustave serves meals to his fellow inmates) – provide the characters with some semblance of meaning as the world they know crumbles around them in an utterly ridiculous and incomprehensible way.

Far from leaving the theater feeling amused but somewhat detached from Anderson’s characters, as his critics have charged is often the case, after watching The Grand Budapest Hotel, you will feel amused and delighted, yes, but also connected to Zero, M. Gustave, Agatha, and all the others in way that feels emotionally rich and authentic. This is one hotel you will be sorry to leave.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel opens in Bay Area theaters today.

 

And as a special bonus for all you Wes Anderson fans, here’s Saturday Night Live‘s brilliant parody from a few months ago:

 

 

 

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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