Like the frosted creations contained within, Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel looks like a delicate, appetizing confection of no particular nourishment, but hidden inside are tools needed to make the film work. (That analogy will make much more sense to folks after they’ve seen the film.)
If ever Anderson has come close to overdosing on whimsy (and this is coming from a huge fan of his work), this is probably it. He Inceptions us into the tale, layer after layer, taking us back through the decades in increasingly stylized fashion to different eras of history, each one seemingly more fictional than the last. While doing this, he is changing aspect ratios to reflect the particular thread one is following at the time. It sounds more difficult to grasp than it is, but it does seem like a lot of effort to go through for what amounts to a framing device, and an extraneous one at that. Especially given how elegantly simple a similar concept was executed in The Royal Tenenbaums. (Both films are ostensibly based on books that do not exist.)
That said, the film itself is witty and quick moving, so any issues with this will most likely disappear once the main storyline begins. That story being the tale of M. Gustave, concierge of the opulent Grand Budapest Hotel in a fictional Alpine country in central Europe, and his new lobby boy, Zero Moustafah. While Zero is the classic Anderson hero (deadpan, quick and with unexplained quirks), Ralph Fiennes is something new. A blustering perfectionist that seeks to be masculine and foppish at the same time, he is not only a perfect foil in a screwball comedy, but he is an excellent representation of old Europe and how it fell away during the second world war.
The whole film is a metaphor for it, in point of fact. Taking place in the 1930s, Anderson never actually uses Nazis as bad guys, but anyone that can’t see that the Zig Zag is his fairy tale version of the 3rd Reich is denser than anyone I’d want to know. One would assume he was inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator in that regard, representing the Germans in similar fashion to the Double Cross of Chaplin’s evil regime. It also seems to have a lot in common with another filmmaker that created an anti-Nazi comedy before it’s time, Ernst Lubitch. Like To Be or Not To Be, Hotel finds itself being a screwball caper pitting the self-appointed proponents of society and culture against thugs and violence. In To Be it is a theater troupe. In Hotel, Gustave fancies himself an expert lover and a poet of exceptional… length.
The film’s cast is overloaded to the point of exploding. Typically I am in favor of finding the best person for the role, even if it happens to be a famous person. Here, admittedly, it is employed so much as to be distracting on occasion. One can understand why so many actors would agree to it though. Anderson films are, to this point, pretty universal critical darlings. An actor can show up, put on a funny costume for two or three days work and end up with a high rated film on their imdb page. (And as many people have made multiple appearances in his films, one would assume he’s enjoyable to work with.) While a lot of people like Bill Murray and Harvey Keitel have quick but memorable cameos, the standout for me was Willem Dafoe as a heavy for the well-to-do family who’s matriarch dying is the kick-off for the whole plot. He manages to exude perfect comic menace. It’s something a lot of actors have tried to pull off, but Dafoe makes it seem effortless by never chewing scenery. Also in a villain’s role is Adrien Brody and his spoiled brat cum murderous Zig Zag man is equally intriguing as he delivers a playfully angry character seeking what he believes is rightfully his by birth. Rounding out the main cast is Saoirse Ronan, who I’ve enjoyed in various projects before. She is more talked up than actually given things to do, but she manages to imbue her character with a lot of pathos despite her limited screentime.
The film itself has an odd look to it as Anderson pulls from his established bag of tricks whilst adding just a little bit of the new. To help solidify the aspects of the film being like a comedy of the time, he goes back to using miniatures and stop motion effects for things that could easily be accomplished by CGI. However, there are some shots in the film where it looks like he’s using full-tilt CGI in conjunction with these old-fashioned and purposely cheesy techniques. It can be a bit jarring, but it does reinforce the idea that CG is just another tool in a director’s bag and that it is neither better or worse than anything else if it creates the visual they are trying to accomplish. It’s also not a coincidence that the bulk of the film takes place in the Academy 1.33:1 ratio that was common of the time and is now thought of as being the old TV format. It also eschews Anderson’s usual penchant for creating a soundtrack of retro-pop hits for only classical music and film score. The film draws the line at keeping to the era’s content limitations, however, and far exceeds the pre-code allotment for language and sexual imagery.
Grand Budapest Hotel isn’t the best Anderson film, becoming a victim of its own grandiose ambitions. It’s always under the threat of collapsing in on itself. However it’s hardly a failure either. It’s highly entertaining, if a bit flawed, and the more I think about his choices, the more I seem to like many of them. It’s also frequently laugh-out-loud funny. I get the feeling that this film, like most of Anderson’s work, will grow on me over repeated viewings.
(Three and a half damns given out of five)