Comedy Drama

Five-Star Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

March 14, 2014Ben MK

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Fantastic Mr. Fiennes

By Ben Mk

To say that Wes Anderson has a talent for creating quirky, interesting characters is an understatement. Now on his eighth feature film as a writer/director, he's built a distinguished career out of concocting unconventional personalities — from failing overachiever Max Fischer to faded patriarch Royal Tenenbaum and undersea explorer Steve Zissou. With his latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson introduces audiences to what may be his most eccentric and varied cast of characters yet — a colorful bunch, including an aging socialite, a dastardly outlaw and an eager-to-please lobby boy — all of whom share one common connection: a gentleman by the name of Gustave H.

The story begins and ends at a memorial to The Author (a man whom we never know by any other name, played by Tom Wilkinson), before which stands a young woman holding a copy of his book, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Within its pages, The Author tells of the experiences of his younger self (Jude Law) at the once-glorious hotel in 1968 — including his daily chats with its "lazy but extremely accommodating" concierge, M. Jean (Jason Schwartzman, in a brief appearance) — but he takes special care in describing a memorable encounter with the hotel's reclusive and mysterious owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). The story of The Grand Budapest is, in essence, Zero's story — which, for Anderson, represents uncharted territory. Not only does the film mark his first foray into period fiction, but even the world inhabited by its characters — the Central European Republic of Zubrowka — springs entirely from his imagination.

The majority of the film takes place in 1932, a time of great uncertainty for Zubrowka. The country teeters on the brink of war with its neighbors to the North, but you wouldn't know it from stepping foot inside the halls of its most opulent hotel, The Grand Budapest, where we find young Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori), lobby boy in training. There, the most affluent members of society congregate to rub elbows, but they mostly come for the extra attention lavished on them by its charismatic concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, in a role that's the antithesis of his villainous turns in films like the Harry Potter series and Clash/Wrath of the Titans). One guest in particular, the elderly Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton, under layers of latex prosthetics), has developed such a special bond with Gustave that he has to coax her into leaving. But when she turns up dead, he winds up as the prime suspect and ends up interned in Zubrowka's infamous Check Point 19 prison. His alleged motive? A priceless Renaissance painting called "Boy with Apple", which Madame D. has bequeathed to him, and which has now also gone missing.

In case you haven't already guessed where Anderson is headed with this setup, it involves a high-spirited, comical prison break and Gustave's quest to uncover the identity of the person who framed him. Luckily for him, he'll have a little help from Zero and his bewitching romantic interest, the lovely and brave Agatha (Saoirse Ronan). Not so luckily — they'll end up crossing paths with Madame D.'s criminal-minded son, Dimitri (Adrien Brody), and his cold-blooded henchman, Jopling (Willem Dafoe), as the two men cut a swath of violence and mayhem across Zubrowka, in search of the missing painting. Throw in a few more characters — played by Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Léa Seydoux and Mathieu Amalric — along with a few callbacks to Anderson's earlier films — like Moonrise Kingdom — and cameos from frequent collaborators Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Owen Wilson and Waris Ahluwalia, and the film is definitely worthy of being called Anderson's magnum opus.

Though it clocks in at a brisk ninety-nine minutes, The Grand Budapest Hotel is every bit as majestic as its name implies. In fact, it's arguably Anderson's most polished work to date and — with its intricate fictional universe brimming with romantic nostalgia and embedded narrative scheme spanning multiple time periods — has a sweep like nothing he's done before. More so, everything about it speaks to his immense eye for detail. From the colorful dialog and sharp writing (played with brilliant comedic timing by the cast) to the lavishly constructed sets (even the ones of the quaint, miniature variety) — even if it wasn't handled with the finesse that it is, the sheer breadth and depth of the overall endeavor is damn impressive in its own right.

The Bottom Line

While it's certainly true that Wes Anderson's approach to filmmaking is an acquired taste, those who operate on his wavelength know that part of his genius lies in his ability to find familiarity, emotion and humor in the unorthodox. And The Grand Budapest Hotel is as unorthodox as anything he's ever made. It's a magnificently ambitious film — a whirlwind of comedy and dizzying storytelling with a heartfelt center — and it represents the very pinnacle of his career thus far. [★★★★½]

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