Wes Anderson is now at that point in his career where his idiosyncratic style has inspired a younger generation of filmmakers to make movies that critics call “Anderson-esque.” However, as hard as some of his disciples have worked (Richard Ayoade’s Submarine comes to mind), not one of them has been able to best or even match the director’s flair for candy-colored, giddily propulsive storytelling. Anderson’s style has been so far inimitable, which of course means that, at some point in the future the director will retire, and we won’t have any more madcap adventures to look forward to. That may seem like a somewhat morbid statement, but all it’s intended to convey is this: every film Anderson brings us is a gift and should be appreciated as such. The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s most exquisite and brilliantly realized work to date, is no exception.
Looking at the arc of Anderson’s career, it’s easy to chart his growth. Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums heralded his bold arrival as a fresh talent in Hollywood. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited, two underrated but undeniably inferior films, saw him stumbling between breaking new ground and falling back on on familiar trappings. Fantastic Mr. Fox let Anderson step outside the box into animation, to great results. And Moonrise Kingdom finally allowed Anderson to combine his gorgeous visuals with emotional depth to create a wonderfully wide-eyed portrait of youth in revolt. Now, The Grand Budapest Hotel has arrived, boasting all Anderson’s distinctive humor and visual grace but also an unmistakably refined sense of maturity. It’s his most assured work yet.
Set in the Republic of Zubrowka, a wartorn European country filled with linguistic eye-rollers (a gas station reads Fuelitz), The Grand Budapest Hotel bounces around between three different time periods. In the present, an unnamed student sits at a memorial for The Author (Tom Wilkison, a clear stand-in for Anderson himself), reading his memoir. Within the pages of that memoir lies the second story, of the younger author (Jude Law) visiting the dilapidated Grand Budapest in the 1960s and encountering its owner (F. Murray Abraham, deceptively devastating). The conversation that they have over dinner one night segues into the film’s main narrative, about the misadventures of the Grand Budapest’s loyal concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his studious lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) in 1930s, as Zubrowka lies on the brink of war.
In that main story, Gustave’s forbidden romance with elderly guest Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, strikingly effective under hours of make-up) leads the woman to bequeath a famed painting, “Boy with Apple,” to him in her will. This does not sit well with members of her estate, principally son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his menacing companion J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe). When Gustave lands behind bars after being framed for the murder of Madame D., Zero arrives to help prove his idol’s innocence. With jailbreaks, a secret society, delicious cupcakes and death-defying races down mountain slopes all in the mix, it’s one of Anderson’s wildest outings yet.
What becomes apparent as Anderson constructs his story is that The Grand Budapest Hotel is partially about storytelling itself. As he pieces together the three narratives and assembles his most ridiculously excessive cast yet, the film takes on a highly self-referential bent. Often, it feels like Anderson is critiquing himself, analyzing the very methods of nutty, over-the-top yarn-spinning that he’s so readily defaulted to in the past. Of course, the director doesn’t let this wry self-reference interfere with the adventure at hand; instead, it adds to the experience, pushing us to simultaneously call out and embrace the fanciful plot developments and bizarre characters up on screen.
And what a story! And what characters! As with all the finest cinematic adventures, I was immediately swept up by The Grand Budapest Hotel. Between its vibrant cast, side-splittingly funny dialogue, thrilling story, and (of course) delectable cinematography, there’s something in this film to hook even the most demanding of viewers.
Anderson has always been known for his elaborate use of framing, and The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t disappoint in that respect. The hotel itself is like an eye-popping layer cake, stuffed to the brim with painstakingly balanced objects and characters. If Anderson didn’t keep the pace moving so briskly, the cinematography might feel stifling in its visual perfection, but he allows audiences to take just one look at each meticulously assembled frame before moving onto the next.
The Grand Budapest Hotel fully showcases Anderson’s dexterity with genre conventions (including ones he’s never been known for, like gunfights and chase sequences) and demonstrates his desire to strike back at Hollywood clichés in one of the most delicious ways possible: by both utilizing them to move his narrative forward and ruthlessly exposing the basic absurdity of their continued existences. All the high-level satire wouldn’t work without a game cast, and The Grand Budapest Hotel offers one of Anderson’s most enthusiastic ensembles so far.
Fiennes is straight-up comic gold as Gustave, throwing himself into foolhardy endeavors with a quixotic verve while also winking at his own ostentatious nature. He’s absolutely marvelous. The same can be said for Revolori, perfectly cast as the straight man to Fiennes’ eccentric, over-the-top hero. Though whether Revolori will find more success after The Grand Budapest Hotel remains to be seen (what have you seen the Moonrise Kingdom kids in lately?), his is a winning debut.
The bitter fury Brody gives Dmitri makes his interactions with the deadpan Gustave a total blast to watch, and as for Dafoe, his physical transformation (complete with gnashing, bulldog-like teeth) is almost as impressive as his baleful line delivery. Jeff Goldblum, absent from the screen for some time, has a great turn as a by-the-book family lawyer who runs afoul of Dmitri and Jopling. Saoirse Ronan shows up as Agatha, a baker’s apprentice with a soft spot for Revolori’s Zero, and has terrific fun subverting damsel-in-distress stereotypes. Meanwhile, Edward Norton gets the opportunity to play a more tightly-laced version of his Moonrise Kingdom character as Inspector Henckls, given the unenviable task of tracking down Gustave and Zero.
Then, the cameos start pouring in. The Grand Budapest Hotel somehow finds room to hand great material to dozens of famed actors in tiny roles. A bald, shirtless and tattooed Harvey Keitel, the ever-regal Bill Murray, a terrified-looking Mathieu Amalric, and frequent Anderson players Bob Balaban, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzmann all put in appearances, each milking simply being present for all it’s worth (which, it turns out, is quite a lot).
With so many stars, there was always the danger that The Grand Budapest Hotel could collapse into a cloying sugar rush of crazy castings and crazier visuals. So Anderson deserves credit for prioritizing the emotional truth of his story above the more extraneous members of the film’s burgeoning cast. Looking at just the two main players, Gustave hides layers of pain and trauma under his spotless uniform and voracious appetites, while Zero soon reveals himself to be a refugee, decimated by a recent uprising.
Though Gustave and Zero’s quest to prove the concierge’s innocence is peppered with laugh-out-loud funny exchanges, there are always storm clouds gathering in the background. War, a relatively unfamiliar subject for Anderson’s films, is tearing Zubrowka apart and, more relevantly, threatening to thrust harsh reality into the fantastical lives of the film’s characters.
There’s a sweeping tragedy to The Grand Budapest Hotel that I hadn’t observed in Anderson’s other work. Time grates equally against everybody, regardless of vocation, experience or personality; some of the film’s later moments emphasizing that point tugged at my heartstrings more than anything Anderson has ever put to celluloid. The film’s more melancholy aspects also impress its appropriately grand ambitions, lending the ’30s narrative a near-magical quality. It may be true that death always succeeds life, but even as (or perhaps because) he notes that essential truth of the human condition, Anderson is able to weave a story and characters so vivid and animated that both (for a time, at least) feel immortal.
I can’t say much more about Anderson’s latest other than that you’ll want to check in, right away. The Grand Budapest Hotel as vibrantly alive and peculiarly staged as all of his best previous work but also more lovably madcap and emotionally complex than anything the director has attempted thus far. Racking up those accomplishments, it’s entirely possible – and maybe even likely – that The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s finest work yet. It’s certainly his most ambitious. But I’m inclined to make a return trip, just as I’m sure you will, to find out for sure.
Gorgeous, whimsical and wonderfully imaginative, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a dazzling piece of eye candy with a deceptively emotional center - in other words, it's Anderson's most ambitious and impressive film to date.