MOVIE REVIEW: The Grand Budapest Hotel



A little under two years ago on this website, I professed to finally being won over by the brand of quirk that is wholly and always that of writer/director Wes Anderson.  Like a whiskey drinker learning to step up to scotch, I finally "got" what makes Wes Anderson the revered filmmaker he has evolved to become.  Before "Moonrise Kingdom," I never questioned Anderson's talent to deliver quality films.  The guy's a writing and visual genius ahead of his time.  However, his films always seemed too far out there and over my head.  I felt that "Moonrise Kingdom," thanks to a pair of unknown leads and a genuinely great story of young romance, was one of the best films of 2012.  I felt it was Anderson's most accessible film to date where the right story came around to match his episodic and darting style perfectly.

Anderson's hot streak at winning me over has now extended to two films in a row with "The Grand Budapest Hotel."  Richly detailed in every sense of possible style, this is a superbly entertaining little caper film that should yield more success for Wes Anderson and earn even more new fans.  I know it's just March, but I'm going to go out on a limb right now and say that this is the best written film you will see all year.  The script is brilliant beyond measure and a star-studded cast rarely misses a beat to make those words shine and leap off the page and screen.

At its essence, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is the biographical memoirs of the crucial formative years of a young immigrant's life.  Read out of a book carrying the film's title by a girl at a cemetery, the novel's author (Tom Wilkinson) recalls a 1968 trip he made as a younger man (Jude Law) to an aging mountainside hotel in the fictional country of Zubrowka that has fallen on hard times and lost its former greatness.  During that visit, he had the privilege to meet and dine with the hotel's elusive owner, Zero Moustafa (Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham), who confides to the author the never-told story of how he came to own The Grand Budapest Hotel.

That whirlwind tale brings us to 1932 when young Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori) begins his experience as the new lobby boy of the hotel under the guidance and leadership of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, the leader of this large ensemble), the head concierge.  In wooing and bedding aging mistresses and endlessly schmoozing rich families, Gustave has done much to make The Grand Budapest Hotel one of the most lavish and sought-after destinations in the world where he is the star attraction.  One aging heiress in her eighties in particular, Madame D. (Oscar winner Tilda Swinton), professes deep love for Gustave and favors him over her own family.  During this time, the hotel is at its peak of grandness.  Zero immerses himself in his important role and keenly soaks up Gustave's endless knowledge and advice.  He also falls in love with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a local pastry chef's daughter. 

When Madame D. soon turns up dead from strychnine poisoning, two elaborate puzzles are set into motion.  The first is the divisive debate over her vast estate and holdings.  The second mystery is the search for the woman's killer, where anyone can be a suspect to the pursuit of Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton).  Gustave is squarely in the middle of both of those conundrums, which means Zero is along for the ride.    

Sifting through hundreds of amendments and documents, Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), the executor of the will, reveals a priceless masterpiece painting, Boy with Apple, has been bequeathed to Gustave and not to Dmitri, Madame D.'s own son (Oscar winner Adrien Brody).  Fearing reprisal, Gustave and Zero steal the painting and stash it at the hotel.  Furthermore, Kovacs also reveals the existence of a secret final will that has gone missing, along with Madame D.'s top butler Serge X. (Bond villain Mathieu Amalric of "The Quantum of Solace").  Appalled by Gustave's seduction of his mother and incensed by the now-missing painting and will, Dmitri sics his vicious thug bodyguard Jopling (Willem Dafoe) to strong arm people and track down the missing items.  All of this clashes when Zubrowka and The Grand Budapest Hotel becomes occupied by world war.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a breezy 99 minutes of unabashed comedic fun and feverish intrigue.  With its bits of sudden macabre violence and dignified outbursts of accented profanity, the film is still an R-rated affair that shouldn't detract you.  Each layer of the pursuits has its twists, turns, and, of course, cameos.  Before it's all said and done, you still have Anderson vets Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban, and Jason Schwartzman popping in as crucial cogs in the master machine.  Led by Fiennes and Revolori, the cast performances are perfect across the board.  Ralph Fiennes is an engrossing hoot, reminding us of the cheeky Englishman hiding underneath his colossal gaze and numerous more serious roles.  Much like fellow unknowns Jared Gillman and Kara Hayward from "Moonrise Kingdom," Tony Revolori gets the juiciest part to be in the thick of all the action.  The engaging young man is our story's hero and he never withers next to the big stars around him.  Each performer, regardless of their resume, nails their role.  No matter how small, even the briefest appearance feels important and valuable to the narrative and not just an excuse to pack on star power.  At the same time, you can tell everyone involved is having a blast developing rich characterization in this highest form of dress-up theater.  The jokes sure come easy when everyone puts their egos aside and mix up the dance.

What elevates "The Grand Budapest Hotel" even more is the technical sagacity that matches the storytelling brilliance.  As always, Wes Anderson's cinematographic style is put to perfect use in this film.  Bolstered by old-fashioned visual effects and miniatures over CGI, Anderson's episodic style shifts (watch the screen ratio change with each chapter) and signature linear movement of front-on tracking shots without a crane camera in sight fills this whodunit with equal parts precision and charm.  That precision extends to the film's vibrant sets and surroundings that leap off the screen.  Marvel even further that all of the luxurious and infinitely detailed production design you see before you to bring "The Grand Budapest Hotel" to life occurred in a defunct old German department store that survived World War II.  Unlike recent Production Design Oscar winner "The Great Gatsby" and fellow nominee "Gravity," this film's vast and rich art direction was achieved with zero green screen filler.  That fact is astounding by today's standards when everything, even benign Hollywood romantic comedies, get some form of green screen touch-up.  Hand production designer Adam Stockhausen ("12 Years a Slave," "Moonrise Kingdom") and his team the Art Direction Oscar right now.

As I touted before, the script is absolutely masterful.  Wes Anderson continues to be one of the most vibrant and original storytellers working in cinema today.  All of his prerequisite brand of kitschy quirk is still here in "The Grand Budapest Hotel."  The mystery-caper story in play is imminently more approachable and fitting of Anderson's style and showmanship, especially when compared to his more obscure and weird earlier works.  In this, already his eighth directorial effort at the relatively young age of 44, I think we're watching an artist that has finally found the right bearing and groove where he can shape and fit his unlimited creativity into finished products that other people can appreciate, understand, and rightfully trumpet for their merits without sacrificing that aforementioned creativity or artistic integrity. 

LESSON #1: THE COMPETITIVE ASPECT OF FINANCIAL INHERITANCES-- The roots of this film's conflict are the squabbling sides laying claim to an old woman's estate.  Ungrateful family heirs are hypocritically at odds with a schmoozing and swindling concierge looking for self-advancement.  Both sides have their own level of greed and selfishness, but the old woman took matters into her own hands, just as every estate holder should.  Too often, the buzzards of greed and competitive pursuits take the place of honoring a deceased loved one.  Folks like that are looking to line their own pocket and respect is pushed aside.

LESSON #2: REMEMBERING AND EXPERIENCING A DECLINE OF GREATNESS-- This film's story is a passed down saga of oral history, experienced by a former lobby boy reminiscing to the fascinated audience of an eager writer who appreciates the former greatness being described.  Every little dated old place in this world, from a declining grand hotel all the way down to a simple park bench, were once new, were once perfect, and have been the setting for someone's greatest moments and fondest memories.  Like many say often: "If these walls could talk."  Those old places and objects might not look their best anymore, but they are still special to everyone who had those experiences.  People have their periods of greatness too that decline with age.  The unassuming old man you see on a bus or in an obituary may look unremarkable, but, chances are, they too have their own poignant and rigorous history and stories.

LESSON #3: THE EFFECT OF IMPRESSIONABLE AND INFLUENTIAL MENTORING-- I would run out of space trying to paraphrase and repeat all of the running commentary notes of advice and direction given to Zero by Gustave during "The Grand Budapest Hotel."  Like a good mentor at any great job, Zero realized that he was learning from the best and soaked up all of that knowledge.  Gustave's tutelage, sometime invaluably sincere and other times morally questionable, shaped the boy who became the man that we see telling this story.  I'd like to think we all have our own Gustaves that we've crossed paths with that took the time to improve an imperfect kid and see our future potential.