A film review by Craig J. Koban April 4, 2014

 Rank: #7


2014, R, 99 mins.


Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave  /  F. Murray Abraham as Mr. Moustafa  /  Tony Revolori as Zero  /  Mathieu Amalric as Serge  /  Adrien Brody as Dmitri  /  Saoirse Ronan as Agatha  /  Willem Dafoe as Jopling  /  Edward Norton as Henckels  /  Léa Seydoux as Clotilde  /  Jeff Goldblum as Kovacs  /  Jason Schwartzman as M. Jean  /  Jude Law as Young Writer  /  Tilda Swinton as Madame D.  /  Harvey Keitel as Ludwig  /  Tom Wilkinson as Author  /  Bill Murray as M. Ivan  /  Owen Wilson as M. Chuck

Written and directed by Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson’s THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is a wondrous feast for the senses and a startling vivid piece of imaginative filmmaking.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it, not even perhaps in Anderson’s own eclectically stylish film resume, which usually highlights his penchant for exaggerated and quirky characters, colorfully surreal environments, and stories that masterfully blend hearty laughs with dark pathos.  There have been some that have found Anderson’s style to be stifling and impersonal over the years, and I certainly have required time and patience to adjust to it.  Yet, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is a work that wholly enraptures you with its artifice within a few short minutes and never lets go.  

This film has the look and feel of an ethereally beautiful storybook come to life; a sense of normal reality here would have stymied the intended effect.  That, and it’s also one of the director’s funniest and most opulent films to date, who matches the film’s eye-popping visual splendor with a host of endearingly oddball personas that give the film a sly, mischievous wit that we’ve come to expect from his films.  The characters all live in harmony within the Anderson's dreamlike world in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, which displays - in shot after shot throughout its running time - a meticulous level of precision and craft.  Like his previous films, Anderson is really obsessed with lovingly engineering every fine detail of his unique film worlds, right down to the makeup, hair, costumes, and production design.  His overall filmmaking self-assurance and exuberance for the material can be felt all throughout THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, which helps elevate it beyond being a purely idiosyncratic work.  

Beyond its sumptuous level of exquisite artistry, Anderson’s screenplay here is an equally ambitious and painstakingly constructed affair.  It opens with an unnamed woman approaching a stature in a cemetery, after which time she begins to read a book written by the man buried in front of her.  We then nimbly segue to the 1980’s as the author of that very book (Tom Wilkinson) discusses the contents of it and how one story in particular has a personal significance to his past.   From here, the film whisks back in time a few decades and we see the same writer (now played by Jude Law) making his way to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the non-reality-based European country of Zubrowka.  The hotel itself barely resembles its past glory days.  The author meets the hotel’s enigmatic owner Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) over dinner, during which time Mustafa tells another story within in the story of his time in the 1930’s when he was a lobby boy for the hotel. 



From here, the film flashes back yet again, this time to WWII-era Zubrowka, where we see the hotel as a shimmering beacon by which all other hotels are judged in comparison to; the Grand Budapest is simply a treasure of the European resort scene and the go-to destination for the affluent.  It’s headed up by hotel concierge Gustave (a jolly and fancy-free Ralph Fiennes) and his apprentice, lobby boy Zero Mustafa (Tony Revolori).  Zero is a poor orphan-immigrant looking for just about anyone to latch on to in life, whereas Gustave – despite his outward refinement as a consummate gentleman – is a hustler at heart.  Actually, he’s a triple threat in terms of being a gigolo, adulterer, and con man that often sleeps with his guests – the older the better – for simply the pleasure derived in doing so. 

Things grow dicey for Gustave when one of the hotel’s most esteemed guests dies under rather suspicious circumstances.  The woman, as part of her estate, leaves Gustave a rather priceless painting, which really upsets her heirs, especially her son, Dmitri (a deliciously foul tempered Adrien Brody).  Eventually, Gustave finds himself framed for the woman’s death and is promptly thrown into a military prison, all while Dmitri and one of his savage goons, Jopling (Willem Dafoe) searches for a supposed second will that could discredit the first.  All of this, of course, comes to Gustave’s attention, making his need to make a prison break with some newfound friends all the more important. 

As previously mentioned, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is as visually luscious as any film I’ve recently seen.  Anderson has opted to shoot the film using multiple aspects ratios, which proves to be a simple, but resourcefully economic manner of delineating the various time periods upon time periods in the story.  The trademark Anderson-ian visual flourishes are all here in abundance – precisely centered compositions, elaborately dolly pans and zooms, and finely crafted editing – in conjunction with the film’s vividly ornate and richly textured set design to evoke a world that’s both familiar and fantastical at the same time.  

Fanciful layer cakes are a constant visual motif in the film, so it only stands to reason that the Grand Budapest Hotel itself feels like a building constructed of multiple layers inside and out.  To heighten the film’s sense of antiquated veracity, Anderson makes use of wonderful models and hand tinted matte paintings and backdrops, giving the whole film an old-fashioned sense of artificiality.  Computer generated fakery would have been a mistake, as Anderson is consciously trying to evoke a brand of movie magic that’s simply not used in abundance these days, which allows for THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL to look and feel unlike anything playing in a cinema right now.  The film's look is simply a joy to behold and drink in; Anderson has never made a more lush and immersive cinematic world of such pleasurable immediacy as he has here. 

Thankfully, Anderson doesn’t lose sight of his actors, and there are certainly alumni from his past films making appearances here (like Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, for example).  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is owned throughout by Ralph Fiennes, who has the tricky task of relaying a man with a playful, rapid fire drollness that happens to be dapper and dignified, but is not against slipping into bouts of anger-filled, F-bomb riddled profanity when under duress.  He finds a good on-screen partner and straight man in Tony Revolori’s Zero, who merrily joins his boss on whatever wacky and zany adventure that comes their way.  Outside of the enjoyment of basking in the film’s visual pageantry, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is always engaging because of the manner that Fiennes so fully submerges himself within his thanklessly tricky role. 

The film crackles with handfuls of hilarious moments, my personal favorite being an extended sequence involving Gustave and his fellow prisoners staging a daring and elaborate escape that has fun in both honoring and sending up the clichés and conventions of genre films like THE GREAT ESCAPE and STALAG 17.  What’s really compelling, though, beyond the film’s lively capriciousness is how it also manages to embrace the inherent darkness of its war-era period and the ultimate sadness and tragedy of Zero’s recount of his times with Gustave.  As the layers of the story begin to unfold and the more we learn of Gustave and Zero’s increasingly close working relationship and budding friendship, we begin to grow somewhat apprehensive by the fact that the shadow of the larger conflict around them will eventually rear its ugly head.  Superficially, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL may come off as a love ballad about the wonder years of hotel hospitality that merrily mixes history and fiction, but deep down it has more sobering and thoughtful things to say about trust and loyalty.  

Yet, make no mistake about it, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is astoundingly droll throughout.  More than ever, it also displays Wes Anderson at the absolute zenith of his directorial prowess.  The film is as affectionately and scrupulously designed and executed as any you’re likely to experience this year.  I may have found Anderson’s approach a tad difficult to latch on to and appreciate early on in his career, but now…well…I find it progressively more difficult to not become lost in it all.  He's got me hooked.

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