Visionary director Wes Anderson throws the cynical filmgoing audience into his own pastel-painted world again in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson is one of the most distinctive film directors working in the business today, with his over-the-top whimsy and nostalgia for “Old Hollywood” standing out among modern-day gritty reboots and mean-spirited comedies. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson brings the same visual panache featured in his other films, from The Royal Tenenbaums to Moonrise Kingdom, and features largely the same troupe of actors. On the surface, The Grand Budapest Hotel seems like just another warm-hearted ensemble comedy from Anderson, but the film takes some pleasantly surprising turns toward darkness, giving it an impressive level of stakes and gravitas.
Primarily set in 1935, The Grand Budapest Hotel centers on Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the titular hotel, and his lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori). Gustave likes to treat his wealthy guests with the best service imaginable, which includes trading sexual favors with older women. After one of those wealthy old women, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), dies suddenly, Gustave becomes the prime suspect in her presumed murder, with her bitter family doing everything in their power to take him down.Madame D. has also bequeathed her beloved painting “Boy With Apple” to Gustave, which he promptly hides with help from Zero. Much of the film features Madame D.’s family stopping at nothing to eliminate Gustave and anyone closely associated with him.
Anderson’s color palette is as gorgeous as always, and each shot by cinematographer Robert Yeoman appears to function as its own art piece. The film extends beyond the confines of the luxurious Grand Budapest, with beautifully crafted scenes set at a prison, a monastery and a train. While each of these settings is notably different, Anderson manages to make even the dullest of locations into meticulous works of art that function individually as well as contributing to the film’s overall feel.
While it’s easy to become distracted by the film’s visual panache, the film also provides a compelling story with two complex characters at its heart. In creating Gustave, Fiennes blends old-fashioned screwball comedy stylings with genuine pathos, providing for a lead character that works simultaneously as a playboy and an underdog. Alongside him is Revolori, a relatively new young actor (another Anderson staple) who works very well in the sidekick role, his wide-eyed stare lending itself perfectly to the director’s style. Revolori’s Zero gets a love interest near the middle of the film, and the depiction of love is fascinating and quirky, especially in how Gustave reacts.
This is mainly Gustave’s story, and while Zero is recalling this story from the future, it never really becomes about the young lobby boy. There is even a meta reference in how deliberately awkward the love interest storyline feels; it might be through Zero’s eyes that we see the craziness of this story, but it’s Gustave who is the more interesting character. This central relationship between Gustave and Zero is the only solid relationship worth investing in through the whole film, as other characters are not fully fleshed out. While it would normally be a bad thing if 90 percent of the film’s characters were two-dimensional caricatures, the text of the film does not necessitate any other significant connections anyway. Anderson’s affected style of writing combined with the actors’ outlandish performances creates characters that are snappy and stylish, creating memorable personalities.
Among the various actors that pop up at one point in The Grand Budapest Hotel are Anderson regulars like Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman, while Anderson newcomers like Saoirse Ronan lend themselves perfectly to the style. Many of these appearances are fun for the savvy filmgoer, but they don’t extend beyond simple cameos. Having said that, some of these cameos are distracting to the point of briefly taking you out of the film, and quite a few of them are hamming it up to the cameras. The film is ultimately at its best when it is concentrating on the relationship between Gustave and Zero as they put their lives in great danger. Zero will seemingly do anything for Gustave, and the concierge’s attitude towards him in return is always appreciative in a wonderfully sincere way.
The film also deals with the impending and then ensuing war in the background of the main action. While the whimsy and cartoonish nature of the central conflict is fun, there is also a stark reality happening just outside the walls of the Grand Budapest. If these scenes of drama stick out like a sore thumb in relation to the rest of the film, it is because they are supposed to. The idealized world presented in the film is stuck in nostalgia, a concept that has its downsides. While it’s easy to look at your current shitty situation and then wistfully look back on the past with rose-colored glasses, as if to suggest things were perfect “back then,” this process also ignores the realities of the past. Zero’s recounting of the story highlights all of the madcap adventures while brushing over the violence and war going on around them because he’s choosing to essentially ignore the negatives. We see Zero decades later as an old man (played to bitter perfection by F. Murray Abraham) who knows that the best years of his life are behind him. He is not the same Zero we’ve seen through most of the film; the tragedy that occurred in those years changed him more than he’d like to think.
Yet even as Zero chooses to not pay attention to these devastating events, it is clear that his adventures with the incredible Gustave made him a loyal and honorable person. This is why Zero can’t seem to let go of the Grand Budapest so many years later, as the bond he formed with Gustave was one that lasted for life. This friendship is at the heart of The Grand Budapest Hotel, proving that behind the artifice and the wacky hijinks, a human bond can last forever, even when it might be best to let go.
MVP: Ralph Fiennes
Best Actor: Ralph Fiennes
Best Original Screenplay: Wes Anderson
Best Production Design
Best Costume Design
Best Original Score