Wes Anderson’s humane intelligence and sense of humor suffuses every striking frame of his new comedy, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Indeed, so distinctive is his style by now that one could recognize this picture as a Wes Anderson without even seeing his signature. It is, I believe, minor Anderson, but minor Anderson is still a thing of many pleasures.
In one of the director’s signature tracking shots, a young girl strides purposefully towards a statue of a writer. He was a favorite son of her country, Zubrowka, a fictional nation in Central Europe. She carries a little pink book: the writer’s memoirs. When she cracks open the volume we're back to 1985, when the writer (Tom Wilkinson) tells us a story. Back in 1968 he had occasion to visit the Grand Budapest Hotel, a stately, pastel Beaux Arts building way, way up in the mountains. Already past its heyday, it was even then a largely forgotten place, almost as deserted as the Overlook during the winter off-season, though travelers still arrived to take the cure in its deserted, crumbling spas. It was then that the writer (played as a young man by Jude Law) met a lonely, mysterious old man, Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Rumor has it that he owns the Grand Budapest. Over dinner in the vast, lonely dining hall, Mr. Mustafa tells the writer the story of his extraordinary adventures back in 1932.
Then he was a young refugee, the intrepid Zero (portrayed by a teenaged actor called Tony Revolori, delightfully deadpan). Zero has managed to ensconse himself as the hotel’s new lobby boy, having slipped in under the nose of the legendary Gustave H., that most gallant of concierges (Ralph Fiennes, perfectly cast). A fop with a remarkably heightened verbal capacity, Gustave’s grace was the mark of an age on its way out. Or rather, it was being snuffed out by the “ZZ,” the fascist forces whose encroachment forms the backdrop of the story. In Anderson's aesthetic terms, it may be that of all the ZZ’s crimes, the most heinous is that they violate Gustave’s sense of manners and propriety. (This put me in mind of Andrew Sarris on Lubitsch, when he said that for Lubitsch it was enough to say that the Nazis had bad manners, and then any horror became permissible.)
Gustave was the apple of the eye of rich old ladies, even their playmate in the sack. Indeed, their largesse seems to be the only thing keeping the hotel afloat, yet if there’s any exploitation in these relationships it’s mutual, and seems motivated at heart by Gustave’s basic kindness. The great Tilda Swinton, looking like a monster out of Monty Python, plays one of these old-lady friends, Madame D. (a nod to Ophuls). When she is murdered, a controversy erupts over her legacy, which includes Van Hoytl’s priceless painting “Boy With Apple.” Her estate’s lawyer (Jeff Goldblum) must contend with the deceased’s scheming son (Adrian Brody) and his gunsel (Willem Defoe, whose amusingly menacing mug here should be in the dictionary next to “missing link”.)
When Gustave is framed for Madame D.’s murder, Zero must help him stage a prison breakout. They’re helped by Gustave’s new friends, a prison gang led by Harvey Keitel. Zero’s girlfriend Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) helps as well. She is a pastry chef at Mendl’s patisserie, whose signature creation, the Courtesan au chocolat, turns out to be good for hiding prison-break tools, as not even the prison inspectors can bring themselves to smash such a delicate creation.
All the while Gustave and Zero are pursued by the ZZ chief of police (Edward Norton), who can’t forget that as a child he was treated kindly by Gustave.
Anderson’s troupe is all here, including Jason Schwartzmann as the 1968-era concierge. One can almost picture Anderson looking into Terry Zweig’s writings (one of the inspirations for the movie), being amused by Zweig’s descriptions of the concierge (this is a fellow who seemed at once utterly uninterested while somehow still endeavoring to please), and picturing Schwartzmann in the role. There’s a cameo by Bill Murray, without which an Anderson picture would not feel complete.
I’ve always liked how Anderson uses music, specifically the way he uses rock ‘n’ roll in a way that makes emotional if not literal sense. In “The Darjeeling Limited” he was even bold enough to recycle film music by Ravi Shankar and others from his favorite Satyajit Ray, Nityananda Datta and Mercant Ivory films. This film features Alexandre Desplat’s lovely orchestral score, Russian folk music, and Vivaldi.
When I think of this picture’s antecedents, I think more in literary terms than filmic ones. Its tone puts me in mind of P.G. Wodehouse crossed with Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” and Mordecai Richler’s “Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang.” (The prison is menacing in a children’s book kind of way.)
I love that in 2014 the movie industry still has room for an auteur like Wes Anderson to dream, to create his droll world. If I allow myself to worry, it’s only that with every picture his actors become more and more like elaborately-costumed dolls he moves around his meticulously designed dollhouses, and less like flesh-and-blood people.
But then, that he never lost his childlike sense of imagination and wonder is precisely what I like about Wes Anderson. Come to think of it, children’s movies may turn out to be his true métier, rather than adult subjects. Recall “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” and how good he was with the children in “Moonrise Kingdom.” He sees the world with affection and humor, and that is a very good way indeed to see it.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)