‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Tom Wilkinson, F. Murray Abraham
Running time: 100 minutes
Bottomline: A comedic masterwork
No one other than Wes Anderson could have made “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Anderson’s storytelling and aesthetics are so unique, his sense of humor so distinct and his visual style so sophisticated we can practically see his fingerprints on each frame of the film.
However, “Grand Budapest” also departs from Anderson’s past work in key ways. He has often flirted with farce, but here he embraces it unreservedly. This is somewhat of a throwback to the farcical screwball comedies of classic Hollywood, only written on an epic scale.
Despite retaining his buoyant earnestness, this is also Anderson’s darkest comedy.
The story takes place in a fictitious eastern European country in the late 1930s, on the eve of a Fascist invasion. It is a violent, frequently deadly backdrop.
“Grand Budapest” is also a buddy movie, a road picture, a heist caper, a satire of the bourgeoisie, and a literate love note all melded seamlessly via Anderson’s trademark style.
The plot is so convoluted a synopsis would be pointless. Suffice it to say, this twisted tale is about Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), concierge at the titular hotel, his lobby boy companion Zero (Tony Revolori), a coveted painting, two murderous brothers (Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe) who believe Gustave romanced away their inheritance, and an endless series of fascinating supporting characters played by brilliant actors.
Anderson’s style is so recognizable and predictable one could credibly argue it is a weakness. After all, we usually measure the growth of any artist by how his style evolves.
Anderson, however, continues to grow by pushing his established style to further extremes.
For example, Anderson always uses a unique color palette, but he has never been as bold with color as he is in “Grand Budapest.” The hotel elevator, in which several scenes are set, is painted an eye-assaulting, lacquered red. When Zero stands inside of it wearing his equally bright purple uniform, the combination is aesthetically radical yet perfectly expresses the plasticity of the characters.
Anderson is also known for symmetrical, portrait-like compositions. He pushes that tendency further, too, by framing characters and the hotel in geometrical compositions reminiscent of “The Shining” or even Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad.”
The only potential flaw in “Grand Budapest” is its frame story, or rather, its three frame stories.
It opens with a young woman approaching a shrine to a famous author. Then we cut to a hilarious introduction from that author (Tom Wilkinson).
Then we flash back to when the author was a young man staying at the hotel. He dines with the owner of the Grand Budapest (F. Murray Abraham), who recounts how the hotel came into his possession. We flash back further into the past and finally begin the story of Gustave and Zero.
Strictly speaking, this unnecessarily complicated structure is an indulgent mistake, although each of the frame stories is so charming it’s easy to forgive.
But the end credits help explain why Anderson set up the story in this way by revealing the movie was inspired by the work of novelist Stefan Zweig. While the core story is about Gustave and Zero, “Grand Budapest” is also about how stories, in oral and book form, can transfix our attention and transform our hearts.
Zweig’s work clearly impacted Anderson deeply, and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is such a rich film it will have a similar effect on many viewers.
On the immediate level, it is simply a great comedy and a joyous viewing experience. But it’s also a touching portrayal of friendship and an impassioned call for civility in a time when extremism and intolerance threaten to exterminate acceptance and grace. Because while Gustave’s ability to win over the most unlikely of people merely by adhering to the rules of social decorum is played for laughs, something about it also rings true.
The mannerism of Anderson’s leisure class may be silly, but paired with a kind heart it is the foundation of civilization itself.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.