Full disclosure, I love everything Wes Anderson has ever made. When some people criticise him for making every movie look the same, I see the consistent, strong style of the most uniquely visual film maker of the last decade and a half. When his characters are criticised for being too precious, too twee or too quirky, I see an amazing mixture between heightened extremes and genuine emotion.
Being such a fan can lead to two downsides whenever he releases something new. Either my expectations are gonna be way too high for any movie to ever live up to, or, my rose coloured glasses will make me refuse to see anything even slightly wrong. So, when I say The Grand Budapest Hotel is even better than I ever hoped it would be, it could be with a little rose tint, or, it could just be that The Grand Budapest Hotel is even better than I ever hoped it would be.
It’s the early 1930s, and Zero (Tony Revolori) has just begun working at the titular, and magnificently impressive, hotel in the fictional eastern European nation of Zubrowka. He’s immediately taken under the wing of the concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a dedicated and expert practitioner of his craft, beloved by his many aged, female guests. When one of them (Tilda Swinton under several kilos of prosthetics) dies and bequeaths Gustave a priceless painting, a wacky caper ensues.
There’s the dead old lady’s selfish son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), the head of the local police, Henckels (Edward Norton), the dead old lady’s lawyer, Kovacs (Geoff Goldblum), ruthless thug, Jopling (Willam Defoe), and love interest for Zero, the local baker’s assistant, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan). With everyone in search of the willed painting, Zero and Gustave are soon on the run, trying to clear their names. And if that isn’t enough, Europe is on the brink of war.
All of this is told under several layers of flashback. Starting in present day as a young woman visits the statue of a man known as “The Author”, she begins to read his book, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Flashing back to the 80s, The Author (Tom Wilkinson) begins to reminisce about his days as an inspirationally blocked young writer (in this section played by Jude Law), visiting a much declined version of the hotel in the 60s. This is where he meets F Murray Abraham as the elusive Mr Moustafa. Cue the next flash back that takes us to the 30s where we discover Mr Moustafa was actually once Zero, the Lobby Boy.
It’s a long way to get to what will make up the majority of the story in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but it never becomes as unnecessary as my description may have made it sound. All of these layers work to make every version of these characters in every era all the more likeable and interesting. The 60s version of the hotel makes you appreciate its 30s glory all the more. While the sentiment created by the Moustafa comes across as earnest and sincere.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou had Zissou’s boat, Moonrise Kingdom had Suzy’s house, and The Grand Budapest Hotel has The Grand Budapest Hotel, but Anderson’s meticulous dollhouse worlds are bigger than these elaborate sets. In an Anderson-tastic montage, Gustave calls on the Brotherhood of Crossed keys for help. This elaborate network of hotel concierges (complete with Bill Murray and Bob Balaban) is silly, broad comedy. It was also probably just an excuse for Anderson to design a series of vintage, ornate hotel keys and key rings. But within the world of this movie, this goofy, over the top (yet totally straight faced) nonsense, just makes sense.
There’s a great scene where Gustave starts to show Zero the ropes of how to be a Lobby Boy, with advice like, “he must be invisible, but always seen”. Watching Fiennes deliver these instructions with such intricate specificity made me think that’s probably pretty close to how Anderson is on set. Not only has every word and piece of punctuation in his screenplay been obviously agonised over and refined to his idea of absolute perfection, you can tell every single piece of set decoration, every single camera movement and every single character gesture has also been equally agonised over and refined long before anyone ever set foot on the set.
In the hands of almost any other director, this kind of perfection would drain all life and spirit out of a story. Yet with Anderson, his meticulous eye for detail, and even his pursuit of obvious artifice in some scenes, are what give his movies such infectious life. None of the sets, costumes or locations are even close to real or practical, no one ever speaks like anyone in the real world. But his characters are so completely formed, that I absolutely believe them, and never question their actions or motivations.
I think because Wes Anderson movies look so pristine and formal, he never really gets the credit he deserves for being funny, and even pretty goofy at times. The same applies to Ralph Fiennes and his dramatic acting credentials. But here, all of my favourite moments involved Anderson’s big, broad, silly comedy, being perfectly executed by Fiennes, often in big, broad, silly ways. Even though I had read plenty of other reviews for The Grand Budapest Hotel that mention how funny Fiennes is, I still wasn’t ready for what a great physical comedian he is.
The greatest thing about the success of this movie, is that it’s possibly the most Wes Andersony of anything Wes Anderson has ever made. The centred, portrait framing of every character. The elaborate dollhouse sets and locations. The recurring (and ever growing) cast of his regular actors. A story based on paternal influences and the search for a father figure. The costumes, characters and production design. The Grand Budapest Hotel is filled with all the kinds of stylistic tricks and quirks that used to be the basis of most criticisms against Anderson. Now, with the resources to blow those tricks and quirks out to massive proportions, he seems to have (deservedly) found more of an audience than ever before.