Films by Wes Anderson are such a challenge to describe to the uninitiated. At the same time that I want to grab you by the lapels and insist that you go out to see The Grand Budapest Hotel right now, lest you risk missing the funniest, most delightful, intricately and artfully designed opus to grace the silver screen in many a moon, I also have to accept the fact that some audiences just aren’t going to get it. Worse, some have found Anderson’s works off-puttingly precious or twee, and The Grand Budapest Hotel won’t convert them. Haters, you know who you are.
There are good reasons why movie critics repeatedly turn to visual metaphors like “diorama,” “stereopticon,” “Cornell box,” “music box,” “spun-sugar Easter egg” and so on to describe the highly stylized look of Anderson’s works – a look like no one else’s. Though he does employ miniatures and animation at times – as obvious and crude as a Terry Gilliam collage in a Monty Python episode – he doesn’t need 3-D technology to convey an extreme depth of field and crystalline detail in every single meticulously arranged shot.
The key figure in an Anderson scene is nearly always in the precise center of the frame – sometimes looking straight into the camera – his or her surroundings radiating out in perfect symmetry. There’s a great artificiality to it all, granted; but aren’t all movies artifice? If you admire this sort of cinematic craftsmanship, Anderson’s aesthetic can draw you in so forcefully that you’re willing to give up all insistence on logic or plausibility without a struggle. It’s like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole. And where you land is someplace magical-realist – in the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a skewed facsimile of Eastern Europe on the cusp of World War II, where a few obsessive visionaries still fight to hold onto the grandeur and grace of gentler times.
One of those is Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the dedicated concierge of a pink Baroque/Rococo pile called the Grand Budapest Hotel, situated in a mythical mountainous country called the Republic of Zubrowka that is soon to be invaded by a grim foreign force closely resembling Nazis. Under Gustave’s watchful eye, the ornate establishment is one of the last outposts of polite civilization. A true believer in the ideal of providing optimal customer service, he runs a very tight ship, endlessly correcting his deeply loyal underlings as he strides like the Energizer Bunny about the hotel’s immense lobby and sprawling halls.
Who ever imagined that Ralph Fiennes could be this funny? Totally deadpan, he slides from supercilious politeness to swearing like a (very articulate) sailor without missing a beat. Gustave is the kind of character who will stand on the edge of ruin or deadly danger and get caught up in a heated argument on the finer points of etiquette. It’s a mad turn that Fiennes sustains at high intensity for the entire movie and makes us believe in it, even though there’s nothing the slightest bit naturalistic about the performance. His mix of polished pretention and raging folly falls squarely into the comedic tradition of Peter Sellers playing Inspector Clouseau and John Cleese as Basil Fawlty; but most of all – especially in the stiff-but-purposeful way that he moves – he made me think of Jacques Tati as Monsieur Hulot.
The plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel turns, however, on a similarity between Gustave and another iconic figure of film comedy: Max Bialystock from Mel Brooks’s The Producers. For among the services that Gustave considers it his duty to provide to guests is amorous attention for rich elderly women. One of those, a nervous countess hilariously played by Tilda Swinton in a Bride-of-Frankenstein fright wig, drops dead shortly after returning to her mansion following a romantic sojourn at the hotel. Gustave and his newly acquired protégé Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori as a young man, F. Murray Abraham in old age), a lad of questionable immigration status who aspires to become the perfect “lobby boy,” hurry off to Madame D’s funeral and the reading of her will. It appears that the deceased has bequeathed the most valuable painting in her art collection to her concierge lover, but the despicable Desgoffe-und-Taxis clan does not take the news well, and Gustave and Zero are forced to flee with the painting.
Gustave is accused of poisoning Madame D and thrown into prison, necessitating what may be the longest and most preposterous jailbreak caper sequence in cinematic history. Enlisting the aid of Zero’s fiancée Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) – who works in one of those European bakeries where the confections are as elaborately constructed as a scene in a Wes Anderson movie – as well as some mysterious monks and a secret globe-spanning brotherhood of hotel concierges, Gustave and Zero are chased across Europe by the disinherited Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) and his nasty hitman Jopling (Willem Dafoe) as they seek to solve the mystery and clear their names.
On one level, this is a goofy caper comedy, but it also has a lot of darkness around the edges, as fascism closes in on this Alpine land of opulent dwellings, fancy pastries and good manners. There are some absurdly gruesome crimes, including dismemberings; Jeff Goldblum as Madame D’s executor meets as unpleasant a fate here as he did in Jurassic Park. And the hotel itself faces a bleak future as history marches on into the Cold War era.
Among its many attractions, The Grand Budapest Hotel is loaded with small roles for big-name actors: Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson play the younger and older versions of the unnamed author who coaxes Gustave’s story out of Zero, and Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Owen Wilson and Bob Balaban all put in appearances. Well, who wouldn’t want a part in a Wes Anderson movie? For my money, the guy is a demented genius. If I were a movie star I’d do it in a heartbeat. But since I’m not, I’ll just have to wait for this fabulous film to come out on DVD, so I can look at it frame-by-frame in total awe.