If you know Wes Anderson, you know what you're getting into with "The Grand Budapest Hotel", perhaps his most Wes Anderson-y movie yet. Its a mystery caper set in an imaginary Eastern European nation between the World Wars, focused upon the fictional 'Grand Budapest Hotel', a pink slab of delicious masonry and old world charm on top of a bizarre cartoon background. Anderson has collected an international cast of diverse actors and actresses, whose accents are deliberately inconsistent, to bring his vision to the screen. The visual style is obsessed with straight-on completely symmetrical shots, with a story-book esthetic that even surpasses Anderson's previous film, "Moonrise Kingdom". Anderson is a true innovator, finding new ways every film to add in still more hipster quirks into every shot. And he's getting further and further away from comprehension.
"Budapest Hotel" will not inspire many converts, but as for those who already appreciate Anderson for his weird brand of filmmaking, you will be pleasantly satisfied with what you're getting. I wrongly believed that "Budapest Hotel" would finally be the movie where Anderson would go too far, where he would build up a monument to his own quirkiness that would be simply too lopsided and pretentious to continue to stand. But he's definitely pulled it off here, creating a strange comic epic out of his own imagination. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is probably not Wes Anderson's best film, but its definitely the one movie that most encapsulates everything that Anderson has ever wanted to be and wanted to create. Much like the hotel he depicts, he's a pompous living anachronism, perched impossibly on an high peak in an equally impossible time, ready to collapse over the edge at any time. But yet Anderson still stands strong, still creating great, completely inscrutable movies.
Within the film there is a note that "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is based upon the writings of Stefan Zweig, an author so obscure I was certain the name was a character Anderson made up*. (It says a lot about Anderson's style that I would first believe he would invent an author for yet another layer of meta-humor.) Turns out nothing of "Budapest Hotel" is based upon any particular Zweig writing, rather its a thematic adaptation of the author's love affair with the glory and grace of pre-WWI Europe. Anderson embodies the sophistication and charm of Old Europe in his lead actor, Monsieur Gustav H., the head Concierge of the eponymous hotel, who is attacked on all sides by the incoming age of mechanized barbarism that Europe will suffer through and destroyed Anderson's inspiration.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before Wes Anderson presents his main plotline, we must first navigate a simply bizarre opening involving nearly half a dozen levels of metanarrative and embedded stories. We open in the current day with a girl leaving a hotel key at the grave of the Author (not Zweig, but perhaps based off him), whose grave notes him as the national treasure of the fictional Eastern European nation of Zubrowka. Then we cut to the unnamed Author in the 1980s, still alive, played by Tom Wilkinson, who awkwardly reads off of his note cards about his inspiration for writing his great novel, "The Grand Budapest Hotel". We then cut to the Author as a Young Man, now played by Jude Law, who is hanging out in the Grand Budapest Hotel in the 1970s, when it is in deep decline and close to demolition. The Author meets the elderly owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa, played by F. Murray Abraham, who during dinner, begins to tell his story of when he was a teenager working at the Budapest in its prime under Gustav H. Which after all that, finally is our main story.
The cinematography is like an illustration in a children's book.
The colors are sickeningly sweet.
The main plot is a delirious murder mystery comedy thriller involving a battle for the inheritance of one of the Gustav H.'s late murdered elderly lovers, Madame D. (played through flawless old age make-up by Tilda Swinton). Madame D.'s eldest son, Dmitri, played by Adrien Brody, is a viscous psuedo-Nazi who has hired Willem Dafoe as a merciless assassin to destroy all that stand in the way of his fortune. Gustav H. is framed for the murder of Madame D., and is sent away to a typically quirky Wes Anderson prison. This leaves young Zero (Tony Revolori) to plot out an escape for his boss, then solve the murders, discover Madame D.'s real will, and hopefully avoid getting murdered himself. This leads to wild chases down ski slopes, a major shootout on the top floor of the Grand Budapest, a secret order of hotel concierges that may or may not control the world, a monastery perched at the top of the Alps, and Jeff Goldblum's character (yes, he's in this movie too) losing most of his fingers.
Of course, Wes Anderson keeps this story as quirky as possible. Young Zero in a fashion choice that is neither explained or acknowledged, draws on a pencil-thin mustache above his lips. Willem Dafoe's character has razor sharp boar teeth rising menacingly out of his mouth. Zero's main love interest, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan**) has a birthmark with the shape of Mexico on her right cheek. Nearly every character in this film, in case you haven't noticed, is played by a famous actor, usually people who have worked with Wes Andrerson before. They are not quite integrated into the film organically, but are playing what are essentially straight cameos, not even shedding their accents. The majority of the actors have British accents, but then you have Edward Norton just speaking like plain old American Edward Norton. Jeff Goldblum is using his usual stuttering performance. And most shockingly, a bald Harvey Keitel appears, sporting an accent gained from growing up in Zubrowka's Brookyln, apparently.
Special Guest Star: EDWARD NORTON!! (Applause)
Furthermore "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a movie that floats seamlessly between semi-realism and whimsical cartoon. It never gets close to full drama, as Gustav H. is far too dapper to be brought down by anything as mild as prison. He is the coolest human being in the universe, utterly unbreakable by all that comes ahead of him - he's even charming to Death Squads. Several sequences in "Grand Budapest" are filmed in the most unusual way, I think they might actually be stop-motion, straight out of "The Fantastic Mr. Fox". The movie continues on its strange bubbly tone even after characters have been brutally murdered and Wes Anderson introduces a troupe of "ZZ" army forces who are basically the Waffen-SS with sharper angles on their insignia.
Really the strongest emotional scenes come not in the main story but rather from the frame story, as F. Murray Abraham tearfully looks back upon his lost childhood and the friends he lost. While Elder Zero is the film's emotional core, Young Zero is the usual kind of blank staring Wes Anderson child. I never can understand why the children in these movies are never allowed to emote, it is yet another artistic decision that I do not understand on any level. It might mean something within Anderson's cloudy mind, or maybe its yet another meta-gag of some sort.
This may be Saoirise Ronan's worst acting performance yet,
but its entirely by Anderson's design.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is on one level an elegant dirge to a proud Europe of smart fashion and honor that probably only existed within the minds of Wes Anderson's and Stefan Zweig. But then its also a screwball comedy, a cartoony adventure through quirky oddity that is probably several times too ironic for its own good. It is a meticulously composed, very well-made story, funny and heartfelt, but I am still not sure if anything I've seen actually made any sense. The math never works out with Wes Anderson, and even though this disturbs me greatly as a critic, it seems to work perfectly fine for these movies. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is certainly not Wes Anderson going too far - he can continue to push on forward up his own insanity and obsessions forever and it appears the movies will still be fun and watchable. Even when Anderson's head is up his own ass, he puts on a great show, and you have appreciate that.
* Turns out Stefan Zweig was an extremely popular early 20th century Jewish-Austrian author, a personal friend of Sigmund Freud's a collaborator with Richard Strauss, and (naturally) an opponent of Nazism. Zweig took the rise of totalitarianism and WWII so badly that he committed suicide along with his wife while living as a refugee in Brazil in 1942, unable to watch the Europe he loved be destroyed any further. Turns out the war was already effectively over by 1943, and the Good Guys Won, so Zweig definitely miscalculated. (Let that be a lesson to you pessimists.) Unfortunately, he's now virtually unknown in the United States now, and his books have not been in print for decades. Or maybe I'm just an artless hick and I should have recognized his name immediately.
** Along with "Muppets Most Wanted" this is the second movie I've reviewed in as many days to feature Saoirse Ronan and a wacky prison break. Weird.