In spite of the fact that The Grand Budapest Hotel feels a little bit like weapons-grade Wes Anderson meticulousness, by all accounts it’s unnecessary to be a fan of his – and it might even help to be a critic – to really enjoy the idiosyncratic filmmaker’s latest. A Barbie’s Dream House for typefont junkies and aficionados of anachronistic protocol, the film projects Anderson’s specificity onto his largest canvas yet, creating a vivid, multilayered story of history and fantasy, fiction, and emotional truth, which only falters when it ventures too close to events whose harrowing reality probably shouldn’t be reduced to a quirky backdrop for the filmmaker’s twee melodramas.
Ralph Fiennes (The Invisible Woman) plays M. Gustave, a concierge at a legendary European hotel who takes a scruffy but ambitious young man named Zero (Tony Revolori) under his wing as a Lobby Boy. Included in Gustave’s self-appointed duties is providing companionship to frequent guest Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), who shows her gratitude by leaving the concierge a prized painting when she dies under mysterious circumstances. But when presumed heir Dimitri (Adrien Brody) accuses Gustave of murdering her, Zero finds himself shouldering considerably more responsibility at the hotel while his mentor languishes in jail.
With Dimitri’s manservant Jopling (Willem Dafoe) surreptitiously disposing of contenders for his employer’s inheritance, Gustave oddly feels safer behind bars than back in his position at the Grand Budapest. But after Zero and his sweetheart Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) become Jopling’s next targets, Gustave and his young protégé hatch a plan to keep them out of harm’s way, and, if possible, expose the truth about Madame D.’s demise.
If there’s a single reason that The Grand Budapest Hotel works better than any of Anderson’s other recent films, it may be because the film’s structure itself feels like a series of Russian nesting dolls, and ones exactly as minutely-detailed as those that one of his protagonists might painstakingly collect and arrange. Using three different aspect ratios to distinguish three separate time periods – “modern day,” the 1960s, when Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) is telling Gustave’s tale, and the early 1930s, when that tale actually “happened” – Anderson effectively tells a story about storytelling, legitimizing the dramatic license and world-building specificity that is a defining hallmark of his work.
Moreover, this layered structure allows a sort of automatic imprint of nostalgia and romanticism – a fond reflection on “good old days” that may or may not have existed – and imbues Moustafa’s story with an emotional weight that a straightforward telling of it might have lacked. But that veneer of sentiment, punctuated by stylized but for Anderson quite intense violence, fails to obscure that fact that World War II was erupting in the background of Gustave and Zero’s misadventures. And even if its killings serve as a metaphorical reminder of the ongoing threat of violence during that time period, Anderson’s approach lacks the gravitas to make those connections tangible, or lend the jeopardized relationships a vitality and resonance that feels truly affecting.
That said, Fiennes is as good as he has ever been as Gustave, a boss, mentor, father figure, and companion whose authority is matched only by his compassion. Although it’s incredibly entertaining to watch the actor pore over the minutiae of his job, tending to its intricacies with a microscopic and sincere level of attention, the character’s breaks in propriety – his occasional “aw, fuck it” – lend Gustave a vulnerability that makes him sympathetic, even at his most intractable.
As Zero, meanwhile, Revolori is equally terrific, absorbing Fiennes’ verbal assaults with the serenity of someone truly underprivileged. The role is a tough one because it demands first and foremost that someone keep up with Fiennes’ dervish-like energy, but also because it requires an unspoken substance, a disposition that constantly recognizes two things – opportunity and friendship – regardless of the circumstances in which he, or they, land. Because it’s the kind of performance that can be mistaken for unemotive, Revolori may go overlooked among the ensemble’s deep bench of talent, but like, say, Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, he’s a skillful performer with talent and promise to spare.
Anderson’s use of the rest of his constantly-growing repertory company – Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Owen Wilson, and of course Bill Murray – is more dexterous than ever here, plugging each of them into characters where they shine brightly, no matter how briefly. And remarkably, he somehow avoids overstuffing the film with too many people and too much information, even as his construction of the universe around the Grand Budapest feels more vibrant and immersive than any he’s created before.
But in a story this archly embroidered, how important is it that we care about those who die? Or that for every one of Gustave’s skillful evasions of Nazi authority, there were countless others whose defenses were not so successful? Suffice it to say that is not what Anderson wanted to focus on, and it’s not the film he wanted to make. But notwithstanding the resounding charm of a well-told story, the melancholy passing of time – the hotel’s forgivable descent into disrepair, and the accompanying losses endured by its survivors – feels less powerful than the adventuresome heyday that preceded it.
Ultimately, Anderson’s work here is, by and large, artistically triumphant, weaving anecdotal vignettes, real (well, approximate) history, and skillful fiction into a rich and very funny tapestry of tragedy and resilience. But with even the pretense of actual wartime horrors – much less genuinely profound personal losses – providing a subtext for an adventure built precisely to fit the dreamiest Dream House ever built, The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like it has been exactingly assembled from all of the right parts, but maybe displayed in the wrong location.
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